Published by
Stanford Medicine

Category

Mental Health

Aging, Health and Fitness, Mental Health, Neuroscience

Depression, lifestyle choices shown to adversely affect memory across age groups

Depression, lifestyle choices shown to adversely affect memory across age groups

IMG_0140Have trouble remember where you put your keys? Forgetting the names of familiar faces? A lack of physical activity, depression, high blood pressure and a variety of other health factors could be to blame, according to findings recently published in PLOS ONE.

In the study, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles and the Gallup organization surveyed more than 18,000 people about memory and lifestyle choices previously shown to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. PsychCentral reports:

Depression, low levels of education, physical inactivity, and high blood pressure increased the likelihood of memory complaints in younger adults (ages 18–39), middle-aged adults (40–59), and older adults (60–99), the researchers found.

Depression was the strongest single risk factor for memory complaints in all age groups.

Having just one risk factor significantly increased the frequency of memory complaints, regardless of age, according to researchers. Memory complaints rose when the number of risk factors increased.

Overall, 20 percent of those polled had memory complaints, including 14 percent of younger adults, 22 percent of middle-aged adults, and 26 percent of older adults.

For younger adults, stress may play more of a role, and the ubiquity of technology — including the Internet and wireless devices, which can often result in constant multi-tasking — may impact their attention span, making it harder to focus and remember.

Researchers hope the findings, and follow-up studies, better identify how health choices made earlier on may impact cognitive function at a later age and lead to interventions to lower the risk of memory loss.

Previously: Newly identified protein helps explain how exercise boosts brain health, Exercise may protect aging brain from memory loss following infection, injury, Stanford biostatistician talks about saving your aging brain and Exercise may be effective in treating depression
Photo by bibliojojo

Mental Health, Podcasts

10% happier? Count me in!

10% happier? Count me in!

harrisDan Harris, author of 10% Happier – How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help that Actually Works (whew, now that’s a mouthful) acknowledges that he’s not a new-agey spiritual kind of guy who you’d naturally find wandering in the tranquil waters of meditation. And across the phone line, when talking to him for my latest 1:2:1 podcast, I can tell. It’s clear he’s an Alpha Male who’s risen to the top in broadcast network news (co-anchor of Nightline and the weekend editions of Good Morning America) by not being laid back. So he might just be the right guy to take the world of meditation out of the “om” and bring it to a new audience. When I told him I thought he might be doing for mediation what Richard Nixon did for China – normalizing it – he laughed and said, “I love the analogy. It’s probably more flattering than I deserve, but it’s cool nonetheless.”

The success of 10% Happier is not something Harris envisioned. As he was writing it he kept telling his wife it was never going to find an audience: “No one is going to read it.” Yet he’s managed to spin out a wonderful tale about the life of a mega-skeptical agnostic journalist finding  peace, happiness and yes, fulfillment, in the land of self-help and meditation. Well, maybe not total serenity. He did have that little spat with a New York City taxi driver last week that caused his wife to remind him that he still has more steps to climb to reach the Zen state of Fudoshin. Nonetheless, Harris is happier no matter what the percentage; you get the distinct impression that he sees a lot more sunshine out there than rain. And who wouldn’t want that?

Harris thinks his worrier gene was inherited from his father, Dr. Jay Harris who he calls “a gifted wringer of hands and gnasher of teeth.” His mother, Dr. Nancy Lee Harris, was much more in the Zen mode: “…slightly mellower about her equally demanding medical career.” (Both his parents are alums of the Stanford School of Medicine.)

Interestingly, Harris tells me he believes that emerging science linking the practice of meditation to a wide range of physical and psychological advantages may lead to the next big public-health revolution. “Say that again,” I asked. “You think that meditation will lead to a revolution?” With no lack of uncertainty he replied:

Yeah, I do. As I’ve said, the science is really still in its early phases, but the science is really compelling. It shows… that this whole, almost laughably long list of benefits from lower blood pressure to boosted immune system to reduced release of the stress hormone cortisol, and then the neuroscience is just truly sci-fi.

When we wrapped up the podcast, Harris spoke highly about the groundbreaking work being done here at Stanford by neurologist James R Doty, MD. Doty is leading his own revolution in neurology and created the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), to stimulate a rigorous multi-disciplinary scientific effort at understanding the neural, mental, and social bases of compassion and altruism.

Previously: Research brings meditation’s health benefits into focus, How being compassionate can influence your health, Study shows meditation may alter areas of the brain associated with psychiatric disorders and Ommmmm… Mindfulness therapy appears to help prevent depression relapse
Photo in featured entry box by J E Theriot

Events, Mental Health, Public Health, Research, Stanford News, Women's Health

Promoting healthy eating and a positive body image on college campuses

Promoting healthy eating and a positive body image on college campuses

IMG_2764rtshEncouragement to focus on physical appearance in our culture often fuels negative body image and eating disorders. College students can be particularly susceptible to body image issues, and a past survey shows that eating disorders among college students have risen to affect 10 to 20 percent of women and four to 10 percent of men.

To create a social environment where healthy eating and a positive body image are the norm, Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott established The Body Positive initiative in 1996. The program provides youth and adults with tools and strategies to overcome self-destructive eating and exercise behaviors. This past year, the women worked with a group of Stanford students and staff members to change cultural beliefs of beauty and health on campus.

In celebration of the student-led movement, The Body Positive is hosting an event at the Stanford Women’s Center this Sunday. During the event, attendees will be able to view students’ art, hear them sing and speak out in celebration of their authentic beauty and learn more about their projects to support positive body attitudes. Below Scott discusses The Body Positive model, research at Stanford to measure the effectiveness of the approach, and ways that parents, educators and others can support young adults in developing a healthy body image.

What is it about the college experience that leads students be so critical of their body image and to struggle with eating disorders?

Students report many messages in the college environment that promote a preoccupation with body image and dieting — two risk factors in the development of an eating disorder. In the student community at college, there are a plethora of messages questioning students’ ability to trust their own bodies and promoting the idea that everyone can, and should, transform the size and shape of their bodies to meet a very slender ideal. Both men and women are susceptible to these messages. Women, however, are also trained to be ashamed of their appetites and ambitions and to shrink themselves and their passions. These messages are strengthened by peers who are also afraid that they are not okay as they are, especially freshman who are separated from their family and out in the world alone for the first time feeling uncertain about how to take care of themselves.

What motivated you and Connie to launch The Body Positive?

We founded The Body Positive to prevent eating disorders by teaching youth and adults to experience self-love, inhabit their unique beauty, and listen to the voice of wisdom within to guide sustainable, joyful self-care. Ultimately, our work is about freeing all people to pursue their life purpose and passions. Connie survived an eating disorder and then lost a sister to body hatred. She was motivated to change the world so her daughter, and all children, could grow up loving themselves and seeing beauty in their unique bodies. I was overwhelmed by the suffering of the people I was seeing as a new therapist in my practice in Marin County. I was shocked (and still am) to see so many young people suffering with body hatred and eating disorders and losing years of their lives. Being a social worker and an activist, I was motivated to transform the culture so that people could let go of the fruitless pursuit of transforming their bodies.

What advice can you offer to help parents, educators or others in establishing a social climate where healthy eating, a positive body image and excellent self-care are the norm?

Learn the Body Positive competencies! Learn to cultivate mercy for your impermanent and ever-changing body. Be a role model of self-love, especially to your children. Learn to be generous with yourself and develop peaceful, sustainable self-care behaviors so that you can gently return to balance when you are out of balance. Explore the ways your ancestors are represented in the natural size and shape of your body and celebrate those amazing survivors instead of fighting them. Trust the authority of your own body and test everyone else’s ideas about how you should take care of it against your own experience, like a true scientist. If you do all this you will be a great role model for others and that is the best way to create body positive community.

Continue Reading »

Medicine and Society, Mental Health, Technology

Reflections on dying, contained in 140 characters

Reflections on dying, contained in 140 characters

A piece on Medium.com shows how boundaries, such as the 140-character limit of a tweet, can provide stability and comfort during times of uncertainty. Writer Amber Adrian describes how Twitter’s forum provided a structure for the expansive emotions she experienced as her father lay dying as Thanksgiving 2012 approached. On the microblogging service, she was also able to record in vivid detail what her family experienced – from the mundane to the morbid, comical, sweet and tragic final moments, stretched out across a series of tweets – and receive support from friends and family who shared memories of her dad.

Tweets from the piece, which Medium notes is a five-minute read:

Medical directive overturned by unanimous family consent. Morphine at the ready. All right, Great Beyond. Let’s get this party started.

Now that the drugs have stopped and people aren’t prodding him every hour, Dad’s sense of humor is coming back. His puns: as bad as ever.

My one rant: Absurd that we have the death penalty but we can’t help along someone we love who desperately wants out of a broken body.

Dad always made the Thanksgiving turkey. Brined in booze and stuffed with cornbread and fresh herbs. I never got the recipe. Damn it.

“I’m excited for you, Dad. You’re about to go on an adventure.” Boom. My brother nails it.

Previously: The role of social media in end-of-life conversations and Grieving on Facebook: A personal story

Events, Mental Health, Stanford News

A campus-wide call to pause and reflect

A campus-wide call to pause and reflect

contemplation by designA friend once said to me in her warm Virginia drawl, “You know Jacqueline, there is a whole other world  on the other side of STOP.” I found out how correct she was when a severe back injury forced me to stop my hectic, stress-filled schedule. It was a tough way to learn a valuable lesson, but I wouldn’t change those pain-filled days given what they taught me about the importance of getting off the merry-go-round of activities that I thought I had to do.

On Friday, those in the Stanford community will be given a glimpse of that world on the other side of STOP without injury, by participating in the Carillon Concert and Quiet Contemplation. Everyone on campus is invited to gather at 11:30 AM for a Carillion Bell concert, a chance to relax, do some tai chai, win some raffle prizes, and most of all STOP and contemplate. Attendees are encouraged to bring a mat and a desire to “take a chill pill” as my children would say.

And for our far-away readers: You, too, are encouraged to, in the words of the event organizers, “pause, reflect and take time to unwind.”

Jacqueline Genovese is assistant director of the Arts, Humanities, and Medicine Program within the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.

Complementary Medicine, Health and Fitness, In the News, Mental Health

Research brings meditation’s health benefits into focus

Research brings meditation's health benefits into focus

Allyson meditationThe effects of meditation aren’t all in your head; they influence your body and spirit, too. That’s according to a Huffington Post piece and infographic summarizing results from a range of studies showing how the practice of the mind can have far-reaching effects in a person. Being in the moment offers not only the potential to reduce sensitivity to pain, ease stress and increase focus, the piece notes, but also to lower blood pressure, boost the immune system and invite restorative sleep.

As discussed here previously, meditation may play a role in shaping other aspects of life. Laura Schocker writes:

Cultivates willpower. Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. told Stanford Medicine’s SCOPE blog in 2011 that both physical exercise and meditation can help train the brain for willpower:

Meditation training improves a wide range of willpower skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control and self-awareness. It changes both the function and structure of the brain to support self-control. For example, regular meditators have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. And it doesn’t take a lifetime of practice — brain changes have been observed after eight weeks of brief daily meditation training.

Now, go find a blank wall. See you in 20 minutes.

Previously: Using meditation to train the brainHow meditation can influence gene activityAsk Stanford Med: Answers to your questions about willpower and tools to reach our goals and The science of willpower
Photo of Allyson Pfeifer by Ashley Turner

In the News, Mental Health, Stanford News

Why stress might not be so bad

Why stress might not be so bad

elfStress: good or bad for you? It depends. A feature in STANFORD magazine discusses immediate versus chronic stress and the effects of each on health over the long term.

From the piece:

Much of what we know about the physical and mental toll of chronic stress stems from seminal work by Robert Sapolsky beginning in the late 1970s. [Sapolsky, PhD,] a neuroendocrinologist, was among the first to make the connection that the hormones released during the fight-or-flight response—the ones that helped our ancestors avoid becoming dinner—have deleterious effects when the stress is severe and sustained. Especially insidious, chronic exposure to one of these hormones, cortisol, causes brain changes that make it increasingly difficult to shut the stress response down.

But take heart: Recent research paints a different portrait of stress, one in which it indeed has a positive side. “There’s good stress, there’s tolerable stress, and there’s toxic stress,” says [Bruce McEwen,PhD] of Rockefeller University, an expert on stress and the brain who trained both Sapolsky and [Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD].

The article goes on to describe some of the physiological effects of stress:

Dhabhar likens the body’s immune cells to soldiers. Because their levels in the blood plummet during acute stress, “people used to say: ‘See, stress is bad for you; your immune system’s depressed,’” he says. “But most immune battles are not going to be fought in the blood.” He suspected that the immune cells were instead traveling to the body’s “battlefields”—sites most likely to be wounded in an attack, like the skin, gut and lungs. In studies where rats were briefly confined (a short-term stressor), he showed that after an initial surge of immune cells into the bloodstream, they quickly exited the blood and took up positions precisely where he predicted they would.

“His work was a pioneering demonstration of how important the difference is between acute and chronic stress,” says Sapolsky, a professor of biology, neurology, and neurological sciences and neurosurgery. “Overwhelmingly, the bad health effects of stress are those of chronic stress.”

Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, also comments in the piece that a person’s view of stress plays a significant role in how stress affects him or her.

Previously: Examining the helpful and harmful effects of stressDoes more authority translate into a reduction in stress and anxiety? and Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky talks stress and the brain
Photo by Dylan Tweney

Complementary Medicine, Mental Health, Parenting, Pregnancy, Research, Women's Health

Ah…OM: Study shows prenatal yoga may relieve anxiety in pregnant women

Ah...OM: Study shows prenatal yoga may relieve anxiety in pregnant women

Desi_smallDuring a pre- and postnatal yoga module of my yoga teacher training, I was enchanted by instructor Desi Bartlett‘s reference to “pregnant goddesses” – our future students – as we learned how yoga could help them prepare for delivery day. (Think deep squats.) Methods to empower goddesses throughout and beyond pregnancy included modifications to traditional poses to stay fit while providing a safe “house” for the fetus, breathing and meditation to steady a busy mind, group activities to build community with other new parents and restorative poses to find calm during a period of change.

Now, a study (subscription required) has investigated how yoga can help relieve pregnancy-specific anxiety in mothers-to-be. Researchers at the University of Manchester and Newcastle University in the U.K. followed 59 women, each pregnant with her first child and receiving normal prenatal treatment during the late second to third trimester, and asked them to self-report their emotional states. A randomized group attended eight weekly prenatal Hatha yoga sessions, and researchers measured those participants’ saliva cortisol levels before and after the first and last classes of the intervention.

From a release:

A single session of yoga was found to reduce self-reported anxiety by one third and stress hormone levels by 14%. Encouragingly, similar findings were made at both the first and final session of the 8 week intervention.

“The results confirm what many who take part in yoga have suspected for a long time,” John Aplin, PhD, one of the senior investigators in Manchester and a yoga teacher, said in the release. “There is also evidence yoga can reduce the need for pain relief during birth and the likelihood for delivery by emergency caesarean section.”

The study was published in the Journal of Depression and Anxiety.

Previously: Toilets of the future, and the art of squattingA reminder that prenatal care is key to a healthy pregnancyPregnant and on the move: The importance of exercise for moms-to-be and Ask Stanford Med: Pain expert responds to questions on integrative medicine
Photo of Desi Bartlett by Natiya Guin

Mental Health, Stanford News, Videos

How the stress of our “always on” culture can impact performance, health and happiness

How the stress of our "always on" culture can impact performance, health and happiness

A 2013 report shows that 83 percent of adults in the United States are stressed out at work. Similarly, data from a separate survey shows that high stress is causing Americans to perpetuate unhealthy lifestyle habits, including overeating and skipping daily physical activity.

During a recent Café Scientifique event, Palo Alto-based organizational psychologist Jay Azarow, PhD, discussed how our “always on” culture can negatively impact your performance, health and happiness. In the video above, he provides an overview of science-based yet practical approaches to reducing and managing stress, increasing energy and enhancing focus and productivity.

As Azarow notes in the talk, how you view stress (as an opportunity rather than a threat) may alter your physiological response. A story published in the latest issue of Stanford Magazine explores this concept further, and offers an in-depth look at recent research showing that not all stress is harmful.

Previously: Study finds happy employees are 12 percent more productive, Examining the helpful and harmful effects of stress and Workplace stress and how it influences health

Aging, Mental Health, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News, Stem Cells

The rechargeable brain: Blood plasma from young mice improves old mice’s memory and learning

The rechargeable brain: Blood plasma from young mice improves old mice's memory and learning

brain battery“Maybe Ponce de Leon should have considered becoming a vampire,” I noted here a few years ago. In a related Stanford Medicine article, I elaborated on that point (i.e. Dracula may have been on to something):

Count Dracula may have been bloodthirsty, but nobody ever called him stupid. If that practitioner of what you could call “the Transylvanian transfusion” knew then what we know now, it’s a good bet he was keeping his wits as sharp as his teeth by restricting his treats to victims under the age of 30.

I was referring then to an amazing discovery by Stanford brain-degeneration expert Tony Wyss-Coray, PhD, and his then-graduate student Saul Villeda, PhD, who now has his own lab at the University of California-San Francisco. They’d found that something in an old mouse’s blood could somehow exert an aging effect on the capabilities of a young mouse’s brain, and you know that ain’t good. They’d even pinpointed one specific substance (eotaxin) behind this effect, implying that inhibiting this naturally produced and sometimes very useful chemical’s nefarious action – or, if you’re a vampire, laying off the old juice and  getting your kicks from preteens when available – might be beneficial to aging brains.

But I was premature. While the dynamic duo had shown that old blood is bad for young brains and had also demonstrated that old mice’s brains produce more new nerve cells (presumably a good thing) once they’ve had continuous exposure to young mice’s blood, the researchers hadn’t yet definitively proven that the latter translated into improved intellectual performance.

This time out they’ve gone and done just that, in a study (subscription required) published online yesterday in Nature Medicine. First they conducted tricky, sophisticated experiments to show that when the old mice were continuously getting blood from young mice, an all-important region in a mouse’s brain (and yours) called the hippocampus perks up biochemically, anatomically and physiologically: It looks and acts more like a younger mouse’s hippocampus. That’s big, because the hippocampus is not only absolutely essential to the formation of new memories but also the first brain region to go when the early stirrings of impending dementia such as Alzheimer’s start subtly eroding brain function, long before outwardly observable symptoms appear.

Critically, when Wyss-Coray, Villeda and their comrades then administered a mousey IQ test (a standard battery of experiments measuring mice’s ability to learn and remember) to old mice who’d been injected with plasma (the cell-free part of blood) from healthy young mice, the little codgers far outperformed their peers who got crummy old-mouse plasma instead.

Slam dunk.

“This could have been done 20 years ago,” Wyss-Coray told me when I was assembling my release on this study. “You don’t need to know anything about how the brain works. You just give an old mouse young blood and see if the animal is smarter than before. It’s just that nobody did it.”

Previously: When brain’s trash collectors fall down on the job, neurodegeneration risk picks up, Brain police: Stem cells’ fecund daughters also boss other cells around, Old blood + young brain = old brain and Might immune response to viral infections slow birth of new nerve cells in brain?
Photo by Takashi Hososhima

Stanford Medicine Resources: