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Big data, Chronic Disease, Clinical Trials, Health and Fitness, Public Health

Stanford to launch Wellness Living Laboratory

Stanford to launch Wellness Living Laboratory

1200px-Female_joggers_on_foggy_Morro_Strand_State_BeachIf you’re the kind of person who wears a heart monitor while jogging, tracks your sleep with an app or meditates to lengthen your lifespan, then a new Stanford project, called WELL, just might be for you.

WELL, which stands for the Wellness Living Laboratory hasn’t started quite yet — it will launch in 2015 — but when it does, it will unleash a variety of cutting-edge tools in an effort to define health.

Health seems like a no-brainer, but it is more than the absence of disease, says John Ioannidis , MD, DSc, the head of the Stanford Prevention Research Center. Ioannidis wants to find out how people can be “more healthy than healthy.”

To do that, he secured $10 million and laid out plans for the project. WELL plans to enroll thousands of volunteers — who Ioannidis calls “citizen scientists” — in two initial locations: Santa Clara County, Calif., and China, with plans to expand to other sites in the future.

Participants may be able to select which health factors to track and to report much of their information remotely and digitally, although some in-person visits may be required. Participants will also have the opportunity to enroll in a variety of clinical trials to test various interventions, such as nutrition counseling or smoking cessation programs.

The program will focus on wellness, rather than diseases, with the hypothesis that promoting wellness thwarts diseases, Ioannidis said.

Volunteers who would rather not provide health information will also have the opportunity to benefit from access to a program-wide social networking effort that will spread news of successful practices, he said. “This outer sphere could reach out to tens of millions of people,” Ioannidis told me.  Stay tuned to learn how to sign up.

The $10 million came as an unrestricted gift to Stanford University from Amway’s Nutrilite Health Institute Wellness Fund.

Previously: Medicine X explores the relationship between mental and physical health, Stanford partnering with Google [x] and Duke to better understand the human body, New Stanford center aims to promote research excellence and Teens these days smoking less but engaging in other risky behaviors
Photo by: Mike Baird

Autoimmune Disease, Chronic Disease, Health and Fitness, Research, Technology

Video game accessory may help multiple sclerosis patients reduce falls, boost brain connections

Wii_balance_boardNintendo’s Wii Balance Board has helped get people off the couch and moving as they play aerobic video games like Super Hula Hoop or Dance Dance Revolution. Now a study published this week in Radiology shows that the video game console’s balance board may help reduce multiple sclerosis (MS) patients’ risk of falls by rewiring their brains.

In a small study, researchers used an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging to analyze changes in the brain of MS patients that used the Wii Balance Board while playing video games for 30-40 minutes a day five days a week.

According to a recent Forbes post:

MRI scans in the MS patients in the study demonstrated significant growth of nerve tracts which are integral in movement as well as balance. It turns out that the changes seen on MRI correlated with improvements in balance as measured by an assessment technique called posturography.

These brain changes in MS patients are likely a manifestation of neural plasticity, or the ability of the brain to adapt and form new connections throughout life, said lead author Luca Prosperini, M.D., Ph.D., from Sapienza University in Rome, Italy.

”The most important finding in this study is that a task-oriented and repetitive training aimed at managing a specific symptom is highly effective and induces brain plasticity.”

“More specifically, the improvements promoted by the Wii balance board can reduce the risk of accidental falls in patients with MS, thereby reducing the risk of fall-related comorbidities like trauma and fractures,”

 added Prosperini.

Researchers cautioned that the improvements in balance did not persist after patients stopped playing the video games, suggesting that patients will need to continue their training in order benefit from the intervention.

Previously: Study analyzes video game-related injuries and Comparing the Wii Fit board to a clinical force platform
Photo by Joachim S. Müller

Aging, Complementary Medicine, Health and Fitness, Mental Health, Neuroscience, Research

Mindfulness training may ease depression and improve sleep for both caregivers and patients

Mindfulness training may ease depression and improve sleep for both caregivers and patients

meditatingDepression and poor sleep often affect both dementia patients and their caregivers. Now new research shows that caregivers and patients who undergo mindfulness training together experience an improvement in mood, sleep and overall quality of life.

While past studies have shown that yoga and simple meditations can relieve caregivers’ stress, researchers at Northwestern University wanted to determine if patients and caregivers could be trained together.

In the small study (subscription required), pairs of patients and caregiver participated in an eight-week mindfulness program. Patients were diagnosed with dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor to dementia. Caregivers included spouses, adult children or other relatives. The training was designed specifically to meet the needs of  individuals with memory loss due to terminal neurodegenerative illness and their caregivers. Researchers evaluated participants within two weeks of starting the program and two weeks of completing it.  Lead author Ken Paller, PhD, explained the results in a release:

We saw lower depression scores and improved ratings on sleep quality and quality of life for both groups… After eight sessions of this training we observed a positive difference in their lives.

Mindfulness involves attentive awareness with acceptance for events in the present moment… You don’t have to be drawn into wishing things were different. Mindfulness training in this way takes advantage of people’s abilities rather than focusing on their difficulties

Since caregivers often have limited personal time, mindfulness programs that accommodate them as well as patients could be an effective approach to helping both groups regularly attend sessions, said researchers.

The findings were published Monday in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias.

Previously: Regularly practicing hatha yoga may improve brain function for older adults, Study suggests yoga may help caregivers of dementia patients manage stress and How mindfulness-based therapies can improve attention and health
Photo by Alex

Health and Fitness, Neuroscience, Research

Regularly practicing hatha yoga may improve brain function for older adults

77878_webPast studies have suggested that practicing yoga can help those suffering from insomnia rest easier and boost the immune system. Now new research shows that regularly participating in hatha yoga, which emphasizes physical postures and breath control, may improve older adults’ cognitive function.

In a study (subscription required) involving more than 100 adults ages 55 to 79, researchers assigned roughly half of the individuals to attend hatha yoga classes three times a week for eight weeks while the others participated in sessions in which they engaged in stretching and toning exercises. The Huffington Post reports:

At the end of eight weeks, the group that did yoga three times a week performed better on cognitive tests than it had before the start of yoga classes.

The group that did stretching and toning displayed no significant change in cognitive performance over time. In addition, researchers say the differences seen between the groups were not the result of age, gender, social status or other similar factors.



Edward McAuley
, PhD, who co-led the study, noted that participants in the yoga group displayed significant improvements in working memory capacity. “They were also able to perform the task at hand quickly and accurately, without getting distracted,” he said in a press release. “These mental functions are relevant to our everyday functioning, as we multitask and plan our day-to-day activities.”

Previously: Stanford researchers use yoga to help underserved youth manage stress and gain focus, Third down and ommm: How an NFL team uses yoga and other tools to enhance players’ well-being, Yoga classes may boost high-school students’ mental well-being and Study shows yoga may improve mood, reduce anxiety
Photo by Neha Gothe

From August 11-25, Scope will be on a limited publishing schedule. During that time, you may also notice a delay in comment moderation. We’ll return to our regular schedule on August 25.

Cardiovascular Medicine, Health and Fitness, Medicine and Society, Research

Study questions safety of excessive exercise for heart attack survivors

Study questions safety of excessive exercise for heart attack survivors

Scope runningA recent article in PsychCentral highlighted findings published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings offering more evidence that extreme exercise for heart attack survivors could put them at a higher risk for a cardiovascular event.

Paul Williams, PhD, staff scientist for the Life Sciences Division of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Paul Thompson, MD, a cardiologist at Hartford Hospital, conducted a long-term study looking at the relationship between exercise and cardio-disease related death in about 2,400 physically-active heart attack survivors. The study reported on data taken from the National Walker’s and Runners’ heath studies at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.  From the piece:

“These analyses provide what is to our knowledge the first data in humans demonstrating a statistically significant increase in cardiovascular risk with the highest levels of exercise,” say Williams and Thompson.

“Results suggest that the benefits of running or walking do not accrue indefinitely and that above some level, perhaps 30 miles per week of running, there is a significant increase in risk.

Competitive running events also appear to increase the risk of an acute event.”

However, they point out that “our study population consisted of heart attack survivors and so the findings cannot be readily generalized to the entire population of heavy exercisers.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the journal also included research from Spain related to mortality in elite athletes. The investigation included over 42,000 top athletes, of which 707 were women, and examined the beneficial health effects of excessive exercise, particularly in decreasing cardiovascular disease and cancer risk. Senior investigator Alejandro Lucia, MD, PhD, said in the article, “What we found on the evidence available was that elite athletes (mostly men) live longer than the general population, which suggests that the beneficial health effects of exercise, particularly in decreasing cardiovascular disease and cancer risk, are not necessarily confined to moderate doses.”

With the majority of Americans still at risk for obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, regular moderate exercise is still recommended by these researchers. As Hippocrates, the father of medicine, once said, “Everything in excess is opposed to nature.”

Previously: Study reveals initial findings on health of most extreme runners, The exercise pill: A better prescription than drugs for patients with heart problems?, Examining how prolonged high-intensity exercise affects heart health and Study reveals initial findings on health of most extreme runners
Photo by: Matthias Weinberger

Jen Baxter is a freelance writer and photographer. After spending eight years working for Kaiser Permanente Health plan she took a self-imposed sabbatical to travel around South East Asia and become a blogger. She enjoys writing about nutrition, meditation, and mental health, and finding personal stories that inspire people to take responsibility for their own well-being. Her website and blog can be found at www.jenbaxter.com.

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From August 11-25, Scope will be on a limited publishing schedule. During that time, you may also notice a delay in comment moderation. We’ll return to our regular schedule on August 25.

Behavioral Science, Health and Fitness, In the News, Pediatrics, Research

Regular exercise may help young girls struggling with depression

Regular exercise may help young girls struggling with depression

Girls running Scope Blog

Staying physically fit may help keep depression at bay for young girls, a study recently presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in Washington D.C. showed. On Thursday, the findings were reported in an article in U.S. News & World Report that pointed to a trend between fitness levels and depression in sixth grade girls.

“We don’t know exactly why there is a link [between fitness levels and depression], but it’s probably a number of things,” Camilio Ruggero, PhD, lead researcher and assistant professor at the University of North Texas, said in the article. “It might be better self-esteem, healthier weight or getting more positive reinforcements that go along with being active, and/or it could be more biological. We know certain proteins and hormones associated with less depression respond to increased exercise.”

The article goes on to say that the trend between fitness levels and depression in boys was not as statistically significant. Although the findings could not show a direct link between the two, they do suggest that for middle school children, staying active and being physically fit is an important piece of the puzzle for emotional well-being.

Jen Baxter is a freelance writer and photographer. After spending eight years working for Kaiser Permanente Health plan she took a self-imposed sabbatical to travel around South East Asia and become a blogger. She enjoys writing about nutrition, meditation, and mental health, and finding personal stories that inspire people to take responsibility for their own well-being. Her website and blog can be found at www.jenbaxter.com.

Previously: Using fMRI to understand and potentially prevent depression in girls, Yoga classes may boost high school students’ mental well- being and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital partners with high schools on student mental health programs
Photo by Sangudo

Behavioral Science, Health and Fitness, Mental Health, Research

Exercise and relaxation techniques may help ease social anxiety, study finds

Exercise and relaxation techniques may help ease social anxiety, study finds

TrishWardMeditationPicPhysical exercise and relaxation techniques are common forms of stress-relief. Now, a new study has found that both may help people with social anxiety perceive their surroundings as less threatening environments.

Researchers from Queen’s University in the U.K. conducted two experiments measuring anxiety in participants. In both experiments, the participants were shown point-of-light displays describing a human but not indicating which way the stick figure was facing or whether it appeared to be approaching or receding. Facing-the-viewer bias, a possible biological protective mechanism, may lead people to assume the figure is approaching and posing a threat. And, according to the study, people who are more anxious may place their attention on more threatening stimuli, thereby increasing anxiety.

The researchers tested two means of altering participants’ perception of threat when looking at the stick-figure displays. From a release:

“We wanted to examine whether people would perceive their environment as less threatening after engaging in physical exercise or after doing a relaxation technique that is similar to the breathing exercises in yoga (called progressive muscle relaxation),” researcher [Adam Heenan, a PhD candidate,] said in a statement. “We found that people who either walked or jogged on a treadmill for 10 minutes perceived these ambiguous figures as facing towards them (the observer) less often than those who simply stood on the treadmill. The same was true when people performed progressive muscle relaxation.”

“This is a big development because it helps to explain why exercising and relaxation techniques have been successful in treating and mood and anxiety disorders in the past,” Heenan said.

The research was published in PLOS ONE.

Previously: Research brings meditation’s health benefits into focusAh…OM: Study shows prenatal yoga may relieve anxiety in pregnant womenStudy reveals initial findings on health of most extreme runners and The remarkable impact of yoga breathing for trauma
Photo courtesy of Trish Ward-Torres

Health and Fitness, Nutrition, Obesity, Parenting, Pediatrics, Stanford News

Childhood obesity expert to parents: Reduce your child’s screen time

Childhood obesity expert to parents: Reduce your child's screen time

screen-tvTake a few minutes to read a brief and informative piece about the negative health effects of too much screen time for children and how you can set boundaries for your kids – or perhaps yourself. In a Stanford Medicine News Q&A, pediatrician Thomas Robinson, MD, MPH, director of the Center for Healthy Weight at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, explains how watching TV or playing video games contributes to inactivity, overeating and obesity. Robinson also speaks to the modern-day concern of restricting access to screen devices that can also be educational tools, such as the iPad.

From the Q&A:

What’s the relationship between excessive screen time and childhood obesity?

It’s a true cause-and-effect relationship. The more time kids spend with screens, the less time they are spending being active. The best evidence supports two primary mechanisms—that kids eat more while watching screens and that exposure to food advertising leads to an increased eating of high-sugar, high-fat and calorie-dense foods. Lots of research shows that kids—and adults—eat more when distracted by a screen. So one of the most important things a family can do is eliminate eating while watching TV and other screens.

Previously:  Talking to kids about junk food ads, This is your 4-year-old on cartoons, Study: Too much TV, computer could hurt kids’ mental health, Does TV watching, or prolonged sitting, contribute to child obesity rates? and Paper explores effects of electronic media on kids’ health

Health and Fitness, Obesity, Research, Stanford News

Without exercise, Americans are growing more obese, according to Stanford researchers

Without exercise, Americans are growing more obese, according to Stanford researchers

gym_smallerMore than half of all American women don’t exercise at all, according to a survey that tracked the health of nearly 7,000 people in 2009 and 2010. Men don’t fare much better: 43 percent don’t work out at all.

Those percentages are dramatically higher than results from a similar study conducted in the early 1990s, which uncovered only 19 percent of sedentary women and 11 percent of inactive men.

More troubling, obesity rates jumped during the same period, according to an analysis by Stanford researchers published in the August issue of The American Journal of Medicine and now available online in a draft form.

What gives? Experts have been intoning “exercise 30 minutes a day most days” for more than a decade. People are just lazy, right?

It’s not that simple, says Pamela Powers Hannley, MPH, the journal’s editor, in a sharply worded commentary that accompanies the study. Many women work long hours, then spend their “spare” time parenting, not jogging, Hannley said. Exercise alternatives need to be convenient and low-cost, Hannley said, noting that some communities, like Tucson, Arizona, where she lives, are considering reducing hours at swimming pools or even closing pools entirely to save money.

“It’s going to take widespread change, not just individual change, not just an app for your iPhone,” Hannley says.

She, along with primary study author Uri Ladabaum, MD, associate professor of gastroenterology, heartily endorse the five recommendations issued by the Institute of Medicine in 2012. They are: integrate physical activity into daily life; make healthy food choices easy and routine; reinvigorate messages about exercise and food; focus on schools; and expand the role of employers, medical professionals and insurers.

Some people, including my editor here at Stanford, aren’t convinced that exercise can single-handedly curb obesity. Diet, the other obvious causal factor, didn’t play a leading role in this data set. The study considered the total calories consumed, but that didn’t vary significantly from 1988 to 2010, Ladabaum and his colleagues write. Genetics, environment and plain ‘ol chance all play a role in overall weight.

This study dug up another worrying trend, as well, one that particularly jumped out to second author, Ajitha Mannalithara, PhD, a Stanford social science research associate: Independent of weight, Americans are getting thicker around the middle.  The incidence of so-called abdominal obesity climbed from 46 percent to 62 percent in women and from 29 to 42 percent in men.

Abdominal girth is linked to increased risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease, even in normal weight individuals, Mannalithara said.

The stats are all based on the robust National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a long-term project of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that collects information from both surveys and physical examinations to assess Americans’ health.

Becky Bach is a former park ranger who now spends her time writing, exploring, or practicing yoga. She’s currently a science writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs.

Previously: Lack of exercise shown to have largest impact on heart disease risk for women over 30, More evidence that boosting Americans’ physical activity alone won’t solve the obesity epidemic, To meet weight loss goals, start exercise and healthy eating programs at the same time and Study shows regular physical activity, even modest amounts, can add years to your life
Photo by Ms. Phoenix

Behavioral Science, Health and Fitness, Obesity, Research, Stanford News

The behavioral consequences of overindulgence

The behavioral consequences of overindulgence

sundae_070714In today’s world of Big Gulps and supersized portions, one giant question looms: How does overindulgence affect our pleasure of food?

To provide an answer, Baba Shiv, MBA, PhD, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and colleagues performed a series of experiments investigating how your feeling of satiety impacts the likelihood that you’ll soon eat the same food again. Their findings offer insights for both individuals that have trouble eating and drinking in moderation and those who are picky eaters.

During the first study, students tried three different flavors of crackers, selected their favorite and then were instructed to eat a specific number. They rated their enjoyment after eating each one. According to a business school release:

The students who ate the larger portion (15 crackers) reported significantly lower enjoyment than those who ate the smaller portion (3 crackers).

These findings replicate previous ones on “sensory-specific satiety”: Each bit of the same food is less pleasant than the one before it. Thus, the bigger the portion, the less enjoyment you get out of the last few bites.

More importantly, participants’ enjoyment of the last cracker (manipulated by portion size) seemed to influence how soon the students wanted to eat the crackers again: Participants who ate a small portion typically opted to receive a giveaway box of [crackers] sooner than did participants who ate the larger portion.

In another study exploring behaviors of finicky eaters, study authors gave one group of participants sips of juice and two crackers to eat. A second group was also given the juice and crackers, but had the added distractor task of counting “e’s” in a series of passages before drinking more juice. Results showed that the crackers partially reset their satiety level, allowing students to find the second sip of juice as enjoyable as the first. Shiv notes in the release how these findings could be useful for parents trying to get their little ones to eat more veggies:

Parents of picky eaters could keep this lesson to heart, says Shiv. Rather than insisting that your child eat every last bite of broccoli, introduce another taste in the middle of the serving of broccoli, to reset levels of satiety. Next time there’s broccoli on the plate, your youngster may be more willing to eat it again.

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