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By ANNA FELS THE idea of putting a mind-altering drug in the drinking water is the stuff of sci-fi, terrorist plots and totalitarian governments. Considering the outcry that occurred when putting fluoride in the water was first proposed, one can only imagine the furor that would ensue if such a thing were ever suggested. The debate, however, is moot. It’s a done deal. Mother Nature has already put a psychotropic drug in the drinking water, and that drug is lithium. Although this fact has been largely ignored for over half a century, it appears to have important medical implications. Lithium is a naturally occurring element, not a molecule like most medications, and it is present in the United States, depending on the geographic area, at concentrations that can range widely, from undetectable to around .170 milligrams per liter. This amount is less than a thousandth of the minimum daily dose given for bipolar disorders and for depression that doesn’t respond to antidepressants. Although it seems strange that the microscopic amounts of lithium found in groundwater could have any substantial medical impact, the more scientists look for such effects, the more they seem to discover. Evidence is slowly accumulating that relatively tiny doses of lithium can have beneficial effects. They appear to decrease suicide rates significantly and may even promote brain health and improve mood. Yet despite the studies demonstrating the benefits of relatively high natural lithium levels present in the drinking water of certain communities, few seem to be aware of its potential. Intermittently, stories appear in the scientific journals and media, but they seem to have little traction in the medical community or with the general public. The New York Times Company
Link ID: 20077 - Posted: 09.15.2014
By Abby Phillip Most long-time, pack-a-day smokers who took part in a small study were able to quit smoking after six months, and researchers believe the hallucinogenic substance found in "magic mushrooms" could be the reason why. The study of the 15 participants, published this week in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, is the first to look at the feasibility of using the psychedelic drug psilocybin to aid in a smoking cessation treatment program. Existing treatments, from quitting cold turkey to prescription medications like Varenicline (Chantix), work for some people, but not the majority of smokers. With Varenicline, which mimics the effect of nicotine in the body, only about 35 percent of participants in a clinical trial were still abstaining from smoking six months later. Nearly half of all adult smokers reported that they tried to quit in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, yet 480,000 deaths are attributed to the addiction every year. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University recruited a group of long-time, heavy smokers — an average of 19 cigarettes a day for an average of 31 years — to participate in the study. They were treated with cognitive behavioral therapy for 15 weeks, and they were given a dose of the hallucinogen psilocybin at the five-week mark, when they had agreed to stop smoking. Although it was a small study, the results were promising. Twelve of the participants had quit smoking six months after being treated with the drug.
Keyword: Drug Abuse
Link ID: 20076 - Posted: 09.15.2014
by Michael Slezak It's one of the biggest mysteries of Alzheimer's. The disease is associated with the formation of protein plaques in the brain, but why is it that some people with plaques seem not to have the disease? Research suggests that some people's brains are able to reorganise during the early stages of Alzheimer's, delaying the appearance of initial symptoms. The plaques in question are small mounds of a protein called beta-amyloid, and are found in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease. Whether these plaques are a cause of the disease has been hotly debated. One reason for doubt is the appearance of plaques in many older people who have no symptoms Movie Cameraof dementia at all. Using fMRI to measure changes in blood flow around the brain, William Jagust from the University of California in Berkley and colleagues compared brain function in three groups of people without symptoms of dementia: 22 young people, 16 older people with beta-amyloid plaques and 33 older people without the plaques. He asked each of them to memorise a photographed scene while inside the machine. Jagust found that older people with plaques had increased blood flow – which means stronger activation of that brain area – in the regions of the brain that are usually activated during memory formation, compared with the older people who did not have plaques. The team then analysed whether this extra brain activation might be helping to compensate for the plaques. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Tara Parker-Pope The most reliable workers are those who get seven to eight hours of sleep each night, a new study shows. Researchers from Finland analyzed the sleep habits and missed work days among 3,760 men and women over about seven years. The workers ranged in age from 30 to 64 at the start of the study. The researchers found that the use of sick days was associated with the worker’s sleep habits. Not surprisingly, they found that people who did not get enough sleep because of insomnia or other sleep problems were more likely to miss work. But notably, getting a lot of extra sleep was also associated with missed work. The workers who were most likely to take extra sick days were those who slept five hours or less or 10 hours or more. Short sleepers and long sleepers missed about five to nine more days of work than so-called optimal sleepers, workers who managed seven to eight hours of sleep each night. The workers who used the fewest number of sick days were women who slept an average of 7 hours 38 minutes a night and men who slept an average of 7:46. The study results were published in the September issue of the medical journal Sleep. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 20074 - Posted: 09.15.2014
By KEN BELSON The National Football League, which for years disputed evidence that its players had a high rate of severe brain damage, has stated in federal court documents that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems and that the conditions are likely to emerge at “notably younger ages” than in the general population. The findings are a result of data prepared by actuaries hired by the league and provided to the United States District Court judge presiding over the settlement between the N.F.L. and 5,000 former players who sued the league, alleging that it had hidden the dangers of concussions from them. “Thus, our assumptions result in prevalence rates by age group that are materially higher than those expected in the general population,” said the report, prepared by the Segal Group for the N.F.L. “Furthermore, the model forecasts that players will develop these diagnoses at notably younger ages than the generation population.” The statements are the league’s most unvarnished admission yet that the sport’s professional participants sustain severe brain injuries at far higher rates than the general population. They also appear to confirm what scientists have said for years: that playing football increases the risk of developing neurological conditions like chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease that can be identified only in an autopsy. “This statement clears up all the confusion and doubt manufactured over the years questioning the link between brain trauma and long-term neurological impairment,” said Chris Nowinski, the executive director of the Sports Legacy Institute, who has for many years pressured the league to acknowledge the connection between football and brain diseases. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Brain Injury/Concussion
Link ID: 20073 - Posted: 09.13.2014
by Bethany Brookshire Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, has many different symptoms. Patients may suffer from anxiety, flashbacks, memory problems and a host of other reactions to a traumatic event. But one symptom is especially common: 70 percent of civilian patients and 90 percent of combat veterans with PTSD just can’t get a decent night’s sleep. Problems with sleep, including rapid-eye movement — or REM — sleep, have long been associated with PTSD. “We know that sleep difficulties in the weeks following trauma predict the development of PTSD, and we know that bad sleep makes PTSD symptoms worse,” says Sean Drummond, a clinical psychologist who studies sleep at the University of California at San Diego. Studies in rats show that exposing the animals to traumatic, fearful experiences such as foot shocks disrupts their REM sleep. Drummond and his research assistant Anisa Marshall wanted to connect those findings to humans. But he soon found out that in humans, it’s not fear that predicts REM sleep. Instead, it’s safety. The scientists tested this in 42 people without PTSD using a measure called fear-potentiated startle. Subjects sit in a comfortable chair with an electrode on their wrists. A screen shows blue squares or yellow squares. If participants see blue squares, they run a high risk of receiving an annoying shock to the wrist. If they see yellow squares, they can relax; no shocks are headed their way. During this time, they will also hear random, loud bursts of white noise. The scientists measure how much the subjects startle in response to the noise by measuring the strength of their eyeblinks in response to the noise. In the presence of the blue squares, the blinks become much stronger, an effect called fear-potentiated startle. With yellow squares, the blinks weaken. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2014.
by Michael Slezak "Cannabis catastrophic for young brains" screamed the headline on an Australian medical news website this week. The article, and others like it, were reporting on a study linking teenage cannabis use with school dropouts, addiction and suicide, published in the The Lancet Psychiatry. Echoing the research findings, the articles declared that if teenagers smoke cannabis daily, it makes them seven times more likely to commit suicide compared with non-users. Indeed, "there is no safe level of use", most reported. They also urged caution to legislators around the world that are gingerly taking steps towards weakening prohibition of cannabis, lest young people get easier access to it. So does smoking pot cause suicide? The Lancet authors say it probably does. Their study combined data from three previous longitudinal studies which together tracked cannabis use in more than 3000 people in Australia and New Zealand over many years. The authors looked for associations between the frequency of cannabis use before the age of 17 and outcomes, such as high school completion, until the people reached the age of 30. They found that those who smoked cannabis daily before they were 17 had lower odds of finishing high school and getting a degree than people who had never used cannabis. Larger increased odds were associated with cannabis dependence later in life, trying other illicit drugs and suicide attempts. But longitudinal studies only show correlation, not causation. The difficulty is that people take drugs for a reason, and that reason could be what's causing the outcome. In the case of school dropout, suicide and daily pot smoking, it is not hard to imagine what else could be going on in someone's life to engender these behaviours. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd
By Smitha Mundasad Health reporter, BBC News Giving young people Botox treatment may restrict their emotional growth, experts warn. Writing in the Journal of Aesthetic Nursing, clinicians say there is a growing trend for under-25s to seek the wrinkle-smoothing injections. But the research suggests "frozen faces" could stop young people from learning how to express emotions fully. A leading body of UK plastic surgeons says injecting teenagers for cosmetic reasons is "morally wrong". Botox and other versions of the toxin work by temporarily paralysing muscles in the upper face to reduce wrinkling when people frown. Nurse practitioner Helen Collier, who carried out the research, says reality TV shows and celebrity culture are driving young people to idealise the "inexpressive frozen face." But she points to a well-known psychological theory, the facial feedback hypothesis, that suggests adolescents learn how best to relate to people by mimicking their facial expressions. She says: "As a human being our ability to demonstrate a wide range of emotions is very dependent on facial expressions. "Emotions such as empathy and sympathy help us to survive and grow into confident and communicative adults." But she warns that a "growing generation of blank-faced" young people could be harming their ability to correctly convey their feelings. "If you wipe those expressions out, this might stunt their emotional and social development," she says. The research calls for practitioners to use assessment tools to decide whether there are clear clinical reasons for Botox treatment. BBC © 2014
Link ID: 20070 - Posted: 09.13.2014
By Jennifer Balmer Each summer, leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) migrate thousands of kilometers from their tropical breeding grounds to feed in cooler waters. Yet how the animals know when to begin their long journey back south at the end of the season has mostly remained a mystery. New findings, to be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, suggest that leatherback sea turtles may be able to sense seasonal changes in sunlight by means of an unpigmented spot on the crown of their head—known as the pink spot (pictured). Researchers conducted an examination of the anatomical structures beneath the pink spot and found that the layers of bone and cartilage were remarkably thinner than in other areas of the skull. This thin region of the skull allows the passage of light through to an area of the brain, called the pineal gland, that acts as biological clock, regulating night-day cycles and seasonal patterns of behavior. The authors suggest that the lack of pigment in the crowning pink spot and thin skull region underlying it act as a “skylight,” allowing the turtles to sense the subtle changes in sunlight that accompany changing seasons, signaling them to return south when autumn approaches. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
by Helen Thomson DON'T mind the gap. A woman has reached the age of 24 without anyone realising she was missing a large part of her brain. The case highlights just how adaptable the organ is. The discovery was made when the woman was admitted to the Chinese PLA General Hospital of Jinan Military Area Command in Shandong Province complaining of dizziness and nausea. She told doctors she'd had problems walking steadily for most of her life, and her mother reported that she hadn't walked until she was 7 and that her speech only became intelligible at the age of 6. Doctors did a CAT scan and immediately identified the source of the problem – her entire cerebellum was missing (see scan, below left). The space where it should be was empty of tissue. Instead it was filled with cerebrospinal fluid, which cushions the brain and provides defence against disease. The cerebellum – sometimes known as the "little brain" – is located underneath the two hemispheres. It looks different from the rest of the brain because it consists of much smaller and more compact folds of tissue. It represents about 10 per cent of the brain's total volume but contains 50 per cent of its neurons. Although it is not unheard of to have part of your brain missing, either congenitally or from surgery, the woman joins an elite club of just nine people who are known to have lived without their entire cerebellum. A detailed description of how the disorder affects a living adult is almost non-existent, say doctors from the Chinese hospital, because most people with the condition die at a young age and the problem is only discovered on autopsy (Brain, doi.org/vh7). © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Glendon Mellow University and scientific research center programs are increasingly finding it useful to employ artists and illustrators to help them see things in a new way. Few works of art from the Renaissance have been studied and pored over as meticulously as Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Yet, the Master may still have some surprises hidden for an illustrator-scientist. Biomedical Illustrator Ian Suk (BSc, BMC) and Neurological Surgeon Rafael Tamargo (MD, FACS), both of Johns Hopkins proposed in a 2010 article in the journal Neurosurgery, that the panel above, Dividing Light from the Darkness by Michelangelo actually depicts the brain stem of God. Using a series of comparisons of the unusual shadows and contours on God’s neck to photos of actual brain stems, the evidence seems completely overwhelming that Michelangelo used his own limited anatomical studies to depict the brain stem. It’s unlikely even the educated members of Michelangelo’s audience would recognize it. I encourage you to look over the paper here, and enlarge the images in the slideshow: Suk and Tamargo are utterly convincing. Unlike R. Douglas Fields in this previous blog post from 2010 on Scientific American, I don’t think there’s room to believe this is a case of pareidolia. I imagine the thrill of feeling Michelangelo communicating directly with the authors across the centuries was immense. © 2014 Scientific American,
Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 20067 - Posted: 09.12.2014
by Simon Makin Talking in your sleep might be annoying, but listening may yet prove useful. Researchers have shown that sleeping brains not only recognise words, but can also categorise them and respond in a previously defined way. This could one day help us learn more efficiently. Sleep appears to render most of us dead to the world, our senses temporarily suspended, but sleep researchers know this is a misleading impression. For instance, a study published in 2012 showed that sleeping people can learn to associate specific sounds and smells. Other work has demonstrated that presenting sounds or smells during sleep boosts performance on memory tasks – providing the sensory cues were also present during the initial learning. Now it seems the capabilities of sleeping brains stretch even further. A team led by Sid Kouider from the Ecole Normale Supérieur in Paris trained 18 volunteers to classify spoken words as either animal or object by pressing buttons with their right or left hand. Brain activity was recorded using EEG, allowing the researchers to measure the telltale spikes in activity that indicate the volunteers were preparing to move one of their hands. Since each hand is controlled by the motor cortex on the opposite side of the brain, these brainwaves can be matched to the intended hand just by looking at which side of the motor cortex is active. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
David Cyranoski A Japanese patient with a debilitating eye disease is about to become the first person to be treated with induced pluripotent stem cells, which have generated enthusiastic expectations and earned their inventor a Nobel Prize. A health-ministry committee has vetted researchers' safety tests and cleared the team to begin the experimental procedure. Masayo Takahashi, an ophthalmologist at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, has been using induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells to prepare a treatment for age-related macular degeneration. Unlike embryonic stem cells, iPS cells are produced from adult cells, so they can be genetically tailored to each recipient. They are capable of becoming any cell type in the body, and have the potential to treat a wide range of diseases. The CDB trial will be the first opportunity for the technology to prove its clinical value. In age-related macular degeneration, extra blood vessels form in the eye, destabilizing a supportive base layer of the retina known as the retinal pigment epithelium. This results in the loss of the light-sensitive photoreceptors that are anchored in the epithelium, and often leads to blindness. Takahashi took skin cells from people with the disease and converted them to iPS cells. She then coaxed these cells to become retinal pigment epithelium cells, and then to grow into thin sheets that can be transplanted to the damaged retina. Takahashi and her collaborators have shown in monkey studies1 that iPS cells generated from the recipients' own cells do not provoke an immune reaction that causes them to be rejected. There have been concerns that iPS cells could cause tumours, but Takahashi's team has found that to be unlikely in mice2 and monkeys1. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group
Corie Lok Tami Morehouse's vision was not great as a child, but as a teenager she noticed it slipping even further. The words she was trying to read began disappearing into the page and eventually everything faded to a dull, grey haze. The culprit was a form of Leber's congenital amaurosis (LCA), a group of genetic disorders in which light-sensing cells in the retina die off, usually resulting in total blindness by the time people reach their thirties or forties. But Morehouse got a reprieve. In 2009, at the age of 44, the social worker from Ashtabula, Ohio, became the oldest participant in a ground-breaking clinical trial to test a gene therapy for LCA. Now, she says, she can see her children's eyes, and the colours of the sunset seem brighter than before. Morehouse calls these improvements life-changing, but they are minor compared with the changes in some of the younger trial participants. Corey Haas was eight years old when he was treated in 2008 — the youngest person to receive the therapy. He went from using a white cane to riding a bicycle and playing softball. Morehouse often wonders what she would be able to see now if she had been closer to Haas's age when she had the therapy. “I was born a little too soon,” she says. Visual impairment affects some 285 million people worldwide, about 39 million of whom are considered blind, according to a 2010 estimate from the World Health Organization. Roughly 80% of visual impairment is preventable or curable, including operable conditions such as cataracts that account for much of the blindness in the developing world. But retinal-degeneration disorders — including age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the developed world — have no cure. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group
Link ID: 20064 - Posted: 09.11.2014
By JOSHUA A. KRISCH PHILADELPHIA — McBaine, a bouncy black and white springer spaniel, perks up and begins his hunt at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. His nose skims 12 tiny arms that protrude from the edges of a table-size wheel, each holding samples of blood plasma, only one of which is spiked with a drop of cancerous tissue. The dog makes one focused revolution around the wheel before halting, steely-eyed and confident, in front of sample No. 11. A trainer tosses him his reward, a tennis ball, which he giddily chases around the room, sliding across the floor and bumping into walls like a clumsy puppy. McBaine is one of four highly trained cancer detection dogs at the center, which trains purebreds to put their superior sense of smell to work in search of the early signs of ovarian cancer. Now, Penn Vet, part of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, is teaming with the university’s chemistry and physics departments to isolate cancer chemicals that only dogs can smell. They hope this will lead to the manufacture of nanotechnology sensors that are capable of detecting bits of cancerous tissue 1/100,000th the thickness of a sheet of paper. “We don’t ever anticipate our dogs walking through a clinic,” said the veterinarian Dr. Cindy Otto, the founder and executive director of the Working Dog Center. “But we do hope that they will help refine chemical and nanosensing techniques for cancer detection.” Since 2004, research has begun to accumulate suggesting that dogs may be able to smell the subtle chemical differences between healthy and cancerous tissue, including bladder cancer, melanoma and cancers of the lung, breast and prostate. But scientists debate whether the research will result in useful medical applications. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 20063 - Posted: 09.11.2014
By Helen Briggs Health editor, BBC News website There may be a link between a rare blood type and memory loss in later life, American research suggests. People with AB blood, found in 4% of the population, appear more likely to develop thinking and memory problems than those with other blood groups. The study, published in Neurology, builds on previous research showing blood type may influence heart risk. A charity said the best way to keep the brain healthy was a balanced diet, regular exercise and not smoking. A US team led by Dr Mary Cushman, of the University of Vermont College of Medicine, Burlington, analysed data from about 30,000 US citizens aged 45 and above. It identified 495 participants who had developed thinking and memory problems, or cognitive impairment, during the three-year study. They were compared to 587 people with no cognitive problems. People with AB blood type made up 6% of the group who developed cognitive impairment, which is higher than the 4% found in the general population. They were 82% more likely to have difficulties with day-to-day memory, language and attention, which can signal the onset of dementia. However, the study did not look at the risk of dementia. The study supported the idea that having a certain blood group, such as O, may give a lower risk for cardiovascular disease, which in turn protected the brain, the researchers said. "Our study looks at blood type and risk of cognitive impairment, but several studies have shown that factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes increase the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia," said Dr Cushman. BBC © 2014
By Sarah Zielinski The marshmallow test is pretty simple: Give a child a treat, such as a marshmallow, and promise that if he doesn’t eat it right away, he’ll soon be rewarded with a second one. The experiment was devised by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel in the late 1960s as a measure of self-control. When he later checked back in with kids he had tested as preschoolers, those who had been able to wait for the second treat appeared to be doing better in life. They tended to have fewer behavioral or drug-abuse problems, for example, than those who had given in to temptation. Most attempts to perform this experiment on animals haven’t worked out so well. Many animals haven’t been willing to wait at all. Dogs, primates, and some birds have done a bit better, managing to wait at least a couple of minutes before eating the first treat. The best any animal has managed has been 10 minutes—a record set earlier this year by a couple of crows. The African grey parrot is a species known for its intelligence. Animal psychologist Irene Pepperberg, now at Harvard, spent 30 years studying one of these parrots, Alex, and showed that the bird had an extraordinary vocabulary and capacity for learning. Alex even learned to add numerals before his death in 2007. Could an African grey pass the marshmallow test? Adrienne E. Koepke of Hunter College and Suzanne L. Gray of Harvard University tried the experiment on Pepperberg’s current star African grey, a 19-year-old named Griffin. In their test, a researcher took two treats, one of which Griffin liked slightly better, and put them into cups. Then she placed the cup with the less preferred food in front of Griffin and told him, “wait.” She took the other cup and either stood a few feet away or left the room. After a random amount of time, from 10 seconds to 15 minutes, she would return. If the food was still in the cup, Griffin got the nut he was waiting for. Koepke and colleagues presented their findings last month at the Animal Behavior Society meeting at Princeton. © 2014 The Slate Group LLC.
|By Amy Nordrum If you were one of millions of children who completed the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, or D.A.R.E., between 1983 and 2009, you may be surprised to learn that scientists have repeatedly shown that the program did not work. Despite being the nation’s most popular substance-abuse prevention program, D.A.R.E. did not make you less likely to become a drug addict or even to refuse that first beer from your friends. But over the past few years prevention scientists have helped D.A.R.E. America, the nonprofit organization that administers the program, replace the old curriculum with a course based on a few concepts that should make the training more effective for today’s students. The new course, called keepin’ it REAL, differs in both form and content from the former D.A.R.E.—replacing long, drug-fact laden lectures with interactive lessons that present stories meant to help kids make smart decisions. Beginning in 2009 D.A.R.E. administrators required middle schools across the country that teach the program to switch over to the 10-week, researcher-designed curriculum for seventh graders. By 2013, they had ordered elementary schools to start teaching a version of those lessons to fifth and sixth graders, too. "It's not an antidrug program," says Michelle Miller-Day, co-developer of the new curriculum and a communications researcher at Chapman University. “It's about things like being honest and safe and responsible." Even so, keepin’ it REAL has reduced substance abuse and maintained antidrug attitudes over time among students in early trials—an achievement that largely eluded the former iteration of the program. D.A.R.E.’s original curriculum was not shaped by prevention specialists but by police officers and teachers in Los Angeles. They started D.A.R.E. in 1983 to curb the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco among teens and to improve community–police relations. Fueled by word of mouth, the program quickly spread to 75 percent of U.S. schools. © 2014 Scientific American,
Keyword: Drug Abuse
Link ID: 20060 - Posted: 09.11.2014
By Lesley Evans Ogden Humans are noisy creatures, our cacophony of jet engines and jackhammering drowning out the communications of other species. In response, a number of animals, including marmosets and whales, turn up their own volume to be heard above the din, a phenomenon called the Lombard effect. A new study reveals that even fish “shout.” Researchers took a close look at the blacktail shiner (Cyprinella venusta), which is common to freshwater streams of the southeastern United States and whose short-distance acoustic signals are often exposed to boat and road noise. Only male shiners make sounds; popping sounds called knocks are used aggressively toward other males, while staticky-sounding “growls” are used for courtship, both heard in the above video. When the scientists brought the fish back to the lab and cranked up white noise from an underwater amplifier, they found that shiner males emitted fewer, shorter pulses, and cranked up the volume of their acoustic signals to be heard above background noise. Published in Behavioral Ecology, it’s the first study documenting the Lombard effect in fish, suggesting that freshwater fish are another group potentially impacted by our ever-increasing hubbub. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Ian Sample, science editor Heartbreak can impair the immune system of older people and make them more prone to infections, researchers have found. Scientists said older people who had suffered a recent bereavement had poorer defences against bacteria, which could leave them more vulnerable to killer infections, such as pneumonia. Blood tests showed that the same group had imbalances in their stress hormones, which are known to have a direct impact on the body's ability to fight off bugs. Anna Phillips, a reader in behavioural medicine at Birmingham University, said the damaging effects of bereavement on the immune system were not seen in younger people, whose defences seemed more resilient. The finding suggests that in the weeks and months after the loss of a loved one, older people should keep in touch with their friends and family, and exercise and eat well, to reduce stress levels and boost their immune systems. "Bereavement is a really key stressor that happens to all of us at some point so it's worth being aware of the negative impact it can have on your health," Phillips said. "It's a key time to look after yourself in terms of your psychological and physical wellbeing. Don't try and cope by staying in, drinking more and exercising less. Try to cope by having social interactions, looking after yourself by keeping a certain level of fitness and eating well," she added. For her study, Phillips recruited people who had lost a loved one, either a spouse or family member, in the past two months. She then looked at how well bacteria-killing immune cells called neutrophils performed. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited