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Stress Management: Reaction to stress may affect brain health

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New research finds that our response to even minor daily stressors, such as getting stuck in traffic or queuing for too long at the supermarket, can affect how healthy our brain is, particularly into old age.




Prolonged chronic stress can lead to a wide range of adverse health consequences, from diabetes, heart disease, and sexual dysfunction, to mental health conditions, such as depression, burnout, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even schizophrenia.

Zooming in on the effects that stress has on the brain, recent studies have suggested that high levels of the stress hormone cortisol may impair memory.

But how do small, daily stressors affect the aging brain? New research, led by Robert Stawski, an associate professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon’s State University in Corvallis, suggests that it is not so much the stressful events in themselves, but our reactions to them that harm our brain health.

Specifically, Stawski and colleagues examined how seniors’ response to everyday stressors, such as a traffic jam, affects their cognitive health.

The findings are available in Psychosomatic Medicine, the journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.

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Studying stress and cognitive health

Stawski and colleagues examined 111 seniors aged between 65 and 95 for 2.5 years. Throughout the study period, the researchers evaluated the participants’ cognitive health using standardized assessments every 6 months.

Some of these assessments included asking the seniors to look at two sets of numbers and then say if the same numbers appeared in the two sets, albeit in a different order.

Previous studies have suggested that performance in these tests is an indicator of so-called response time inconsistency — a marker of impaired cognitive processing and poor brain health.

Over the 2.5 year period, the participants completed the exercises up to 30 times. The researchers also asked the participants to talk about the stressors they had been subjected to that day, as well as about the stressors experienced by their family members and other close friends.

The seniors rated their feelings during a stressful moment using a range of positive and negative emotions, as well as a scale of intensity. Finally, they also completed a checklist on physical symptoms.



Stress response affects brain health

Overall, the study found that people whose response to daily stressors involved more negative emotions and were of higher intensity had higher inconsistencies in their response time, suggesting poorer mental focus and brain health.

The research also revealed significant age differences. For instance, the older participants — who were in their late 70s and up to their late 90s — were most affected. That is, their high-stress reactivity correlated strongly with worse cognitive performance.

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However, for those in their late 60s to mid-70s, more stress seemed to benefit their cognitive health. “These relatively younger participants may have a more active lifestyle to begin with, more social and professional engagement, which could sharpen their mental functioning,” Stawski speculates.

The study’s lead investigator adds that older seniors should pay more attention to their emotional response to daily stressors and try to reduce their stress where possible to preserve their cognitive health well into old age.

“We can’t get rid of daily stressors completely,” Stawski says, “[b]ut endowing people with the skills to weather stressors when they happen could pay dividends in cognitive health.”

The findings are highly relevant, adds Stawski, given that the population aged 80 and above is the “world’s fastest growing age group.” Indeed, a report issued by the National Institutes of Aging in 2009 found that the world’s “oldest-old” are “the fastest growing component of many national populations.”

In this context, brain health and cognition are particularly important, as the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are on the rise globally, along with the aging population.

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Stay Healthy & Protect Yourself from Cancer

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Health they say is wealth and there are certain habits that can guarantee great health even as you progress in years.
Eight healthy behaviors can go a long way toward improving your health and lowering your risk of many cancers as well as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and osteoporosis. And they’re not as complicated as you might think.
So take control of your health, and encourage your family to do the same. Choose one or two of the behaviors below to start with. Once you’ve got those down, move on to the others.
1. Maintain a Healthy Weight
Keeping your weight in check is often easier said than done, but a few simple tips can help. First off, if you’re overweight, focus initially on not gaining any more weight. This by itself can improve your health. Then, when you’re ready, try to take off some extra pounds for an even greater health boost. To see where you fall on the weight range, click here.
Tips
  • Integrate physical activity and movement into your life.
  • Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Choose smaller portions and eat more slowly.
For Parents and Grandparents 
  • Limit children’s TV and computer time.
  • Encourage healthy snacking on fruits and vegetables.
  • Encourage activity during free time.
2. Exercise Regularly
Few things are as good for you as regular physical activity. While it can be hard to find the time, it’s important to fit in at least 30 minutes of activity every day. More is even better, but any amount is better than none.
Tips 
  • Choose activities you enjoy. Many things count as exercise, including walking, gardening and dancing.
  • Make exercise a habit by setting aside the same time for it each day. Try going to the gym at lunchtime or taking a walk regularly after dinner.
  • Stay motivated by exercising with someone.
For Parents and Grandparents 
  • Play active games with your kids regularly and go on family walks and bike rides when the weather allows.
  • Encourage children to play outside (when it’s safe) and to take part in organized activities, including soccer, gymnastics and dancing.
  • Walk with your kids to school in the morning. It’s great exercise for everyone.
3. Don’t Smoke
You’ve heard it before: If you smoke, quitting is absolutely the best thing you can do for your health. Yes, it’s hard, but it’s also far from impossible. More than 1,000 Americans stop for good every day.
Tips 
  • Keep trying! It often takes six or seven tries before you quit for good.
  • Talk to a health-care provider for help.
  • Join a quit-smoking program. Your workplace or health plan may offer one.
For Parents and Grandparents
  • Try to quit as soon as possible. If you smoke, your children will be more likely to smoke.
  • Don’t smoke in the house or car. If kids breathe in your smoke, they may have a higher risk of breathing problems and lung cancer.
  • When appropriate, talk to your kids about the dangers of smoking and chewing tobacco. A health-care professional or school counselor can help.
4. Eat a Healthy Diet
Despite confusing news reports, the basics of healthy eating are actually quite straightforward. You should focus on fruits, vegetables and whole grains and keep red meat to a minimum. It’s also important to cut back on bad fats (saturated and trans fats) and choose healthy fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats) more often. Taking a multivitamin with folate every day is a great nutrition insurance policy.
Tips
  • Make fruits and vegetables a part of every meal. Put fruit on your cereal. Eat vegetables as a snack.
  • Choose chicken, fish or beans instead of red meat.
  • Choose whole-grain cereal, brown rice and whole-wheat bread over their more refined counterparts.
  • Choose dishes made with olive or canola oil, which are high in healthy fats.
  • Cut back on fast food and store-bought snacks (like cookies), which are high in bad fats.
  • Buy a 100 percent RDA multivitamin that contains folate.
5. Drink Alcohol Only in Moderation, If at All
Moderate drinking is good for the heart, as many people already know, but it can also increase the risk of cancer. If you don’t drink, don’t feel that you need to start. If you already drink moderately (less than one drink a day for women, less than two drinks a day for men), there’s probably no reason to stop. People who drink more, though, should cut back.
Tips
  • Choose nonalcoholic beverages at meals and parties.
  • Avoid occasions centered around alcohol.
  • Talk to a health-care professional if you feel you have a problem with alcohol.
For Parents and Grandparents
  • Avoid making alcohol an essential part of family gatherings.
  • When appropriate, discuss the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse with children. A health-care professional or school counselor can help.
6. Protect Yourself from the Sun
While the warm sun is certainly inviting, too much exposure to it can lead to skin cancer, including serious melanoma. Skin damage starts early in childhood, so it’s especially important to protect children.
Tips
  • Steer clear of direct sunlight between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. (peak burning hours). It’s the best way to protect yourself.
  • Wear hats, long-sleeve shirts and sunscreens with SPF15 or higher.
  • Don’t use sun lamps or tanning booths. Try self-tanning creams instead.
For Parents and Grandparents 
  • Buy tinted sunscreen so you can see if you’ve missed any spots on a fidgety child.
  • Set a good example for children by also protecting yourself with clothing, shade and sunscreen.
7. Protect Yourself From Sexually Transmitted Infections
Among other problems, sexually transmitted infections – like human papillomavirus (HPV) – are linked to a number of different cancers. Protecting yourself from these infections can lower your risk.
Tips
  • Aside from not having sex, the best protection is to be in a committed, monogamous relationship with someone who does not have a sexually transmitted infection.
  • For all other situations, be sure to always use a condom and follow other safe-sex practices.
  • Never rely on your partner to have a condom. Always be prepared.
For Parents and Grandparents
  • When appropriate, discuss with children the importance of abstinence and safe sex. A health-care professional or school counselor can help.
  • Vaccinate girls and young women as well as boys and young men against HPV. Talk to a health professional for more information.
8. Get Screening Tests
There are a number of important screening tests that can help protect against cancer. Some of these tests find cancer early when they are most treatable, while others can actually help keep cancer from developing in the first place. For colorectal cancer alone, regular screening could save over 30,000 lives each year. That’s three times the number of people killed by drunk drivers in the United States in all of 2011. Talk to a health care professional about which tests you should have and when.
Cancers that should be tested for regularly:
  • Colon and rectal cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Cervical cancer
  • Lung cancer (in current or past heavy smokers)

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Health & Lifestyle

Sickle cell may get solution soon – scientists.

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Scientists in the U.S. have unveiled results of a small clinical trial that could mean an effective “cure” for sickle cell anemia, the painful and debilitating disease that inflicts many millions of people across the globe, mostly of African heritage and including some 100,000 African Americans in the U.S.



Researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) say they have used gene therapy techniques to add a “corrected” gene for healthy red blood cells into the bodies of nine test patients, replacing their diseased red blood cells caused by sickle cell anemia and effectively ridding them of signs of the disease.

NIH Director Francis Collins described the trial results as seemingly “spectacular”.

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“When you look at their blood counts and their blood smears, it looks like they don’t have it anymore,” Collins said on Monday (March 11) from his office at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.

Sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disorder that causes protein crystals to form inside red blood cells, changing their shape from a flat disk into a crescent or sickle shape that then clogs up the small blood vessels and results in terrible episodes of pain and organ damage.

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But they believe the basic premise of introducing a corrected gene into the body holds promise for Africa provided a simpler, cheaper and less toxic delivery system than bone marrow transplant and the accompanying chemotherapy can be found.

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