When it comes to memory, sleep is a Goldilocks issue: both too much and too little aren’t good. Aim for “just right,” says a new report from the Harvard-based Nurses’ Health Study. Study participants who slept five hours or fewer per night or nine hours or more did worse on tests of memory and thinking skills that those getting seven to eight hours of sleep a night. The researchers estimated that undersleepers and oversleepers were mentally two years older than the women who got seven to eight hours of shut-eye a night. Although this study couldn’t prove that getting too little or too much sleep causes memory and thinking problems, it’s in line with other work showing the potentially harmful effects of poor sleep. Previous research has linked poor sleep with higher risks of heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, and depression.
A new report from the Alzheimer’s Association says that as many as 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. Every 67 seconds someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. That’s 470,000 Americans this year alone. Given that these thieves of memory and personality are so common and so feared, should all older Americans be tested for them? In proposed guidelines released yesterday, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force said “no.” Why not? Even after conducting a thorough review of the evidence, the panel said that there isn’t enough solid evidence to recommend screening, especially since not enough is known about the benefits and the harms. In part, the recommendation is based on the sad fact that so far there aren’t any truly effective approaches to stop the forward progress of dementia.
The grief of losing a spouse or partner affects not just emotional and mental health, but physical health as well. The surviving spouse or partner often develops health problems in the weeks and months that follow. A study published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine found that individuals who had lost a spouse or partner were more likely to have a heart attack or stroke within the next 30 days. Grief activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for revving up the body’s fight-or-flight response. That can lead to stress-induced changes in blood pressure, heart rate, and blood clotting. There is also a tendency after such a profound loss for the surviving spouse or partner to disregard his or her own health. It can take several months to a year to work through grief and grieving. If it lasts much longer, and is interfering with daily life—seeing friends, doing once-pleasurable activities—it’s possible that grief has morphed into something more serious, like depression.
For some people, like those with an addiction, any amount of alcohol is too much. For others, drinking alcohol is something of a balancing act — a little may be healthful, while more than a little may be harmful. A new report in the journal Neurology highlights the dual effects of alcohol in men. As part of the Whitehall II study in Britain, researchers assessed the drinking habits of middle-aged men and women three times over a 10-year period. The study participants also took a mental skills test three times over the next 10 years. Compared with men who didn’t drink or who drank moderately, mental decline began to appear one to six years earlier in men who averaged more than 2.5 drinks a day. (There weren’t enough heavy drinkers among women to show any clear differences.) How does a person know if he or she is drinking too much? The CAGE and AUDIT tests can help.
Many people practice meditation in hopes of staving off stress and stress-related health problems, even though the evidence for doing so is spotty. A new study that analyzed the results of nearly 50 solid clinical trials of meditation shows that mindfulness meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain. One way it does this is by training you to experience anxious thoughts or stresses in completely different and less emotionally disturbing ways. Mindfulness-based stress reduction training, developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, MA, is now widely available in cities throughout the United States. You can also learn it yourself from books or online recordings. Or try this short meditation, from the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn: “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.”
Millions of American men and women have served in the Armed Forces, protecting and defending our nation. Although many died, most returned home to “pick up their lives.” That isn’t always easy. For some veterans, the trauma of war changes the brain in ways that can cause long-term problems. According to the American Psychiatric Association, more than 300,000 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD. Countless others probably suffer from this condition but have never sought help for it. Even sadder, in 2012 more military deaths were caused by suicide than by combat. If you know a veteran, thank him or her for having served our nation. And if you think he or she is having trouble, bolster your courage and ask. Beginning the conversation may open the door to healing.
What’s bad for the heart is often bad for the brain. High cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and unhealthy “hardening” of the arteries increase the risk of mental decline or dementia later in life. A study published online today in Neurology shows that older people with the stiffest arteries are more likely to show the kinds of damage to brain tissue often seen in people with dementia. The study adds support to the “two hit” theory of dementia. It suggests that the accumulation of Alzheimer’s-linked amyloid protein in the brain may not pose problems until damage to small blood vessels that nourish the brain nudges them over into dementia. There may be a silver lining to this line of research: Efforts to improve cardiovascular health can also protect the brain.
For many people, a late-night “snack” is a daily habit. There are two types of nighttime eating disorders. Sleep-related eating disorder is a highly-publicized though uncommon malady. People with this problem eat while sleepwalking or while in a twilight state between sleep and wakefulness. A better-documented problem is night eating syndrome, in which people do the majority of their eating late at night. It may affect 1 or 2 out of 100 people in the general population. Sleeping and eating are almost certainly connected, given the link between lack of sleep and weight gain. So getting plenty of sleep may be a helpful substitute for nighttime trips to the refrigerator. Being mindful of the problem and trying to identify its triggers, or stress-reduction techniques, may help avert trips to the refrigerator. Some people benefit from talk therapy.
Have you ever been so immersed in what you were doing that all distractions and background chatter just fell away? Nothing existed except the brush and your painting, your skis and the slope, your car and the road. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a renowned professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., calls that state of intense absorption “flow.” Flow experiences lead to positive emotions in the short term, and over the long term people who more frequently experience flow are generally happier. Flow experiences have several common characteristics. These include losing awareness of time, not thinking about yourself, working effortlessly, and wanting to repeat the experience. They are more likely to occur when there is a balance between the challenge of an activity and the skill you have in performing it.
Depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health problems arise when something goes wrong with brain function. What causes that malfunction is an open question. A new study from Denmark suggests that a serious infection or autoimmune disease could trigger a mood disorder. How might an infection or autoimmune disorder lead to a mood or other mental health disorder? Infection causes localized and body-wide inflammation. Inflammation generates substances called cytokines that have been shown to change how brain cells communicate. In autoimmune diseases, the body’s defense system attacks healthy tissues rather than threatening invaders. It’s possible that in some cases the wayward immune reaction could target brain cells and other nerve cells throughout the body.