Mental Health

The placebo effect: Amazing and real

Robert Shmerling, M.D.
Robert Shmerling, M.D., Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Many people believe that the placebo effect is solely a psychological phenomenon. But for some people, a placebo can have real, measurable therapeutic benefits. The power of the placebo effect is significant enough that it can actually skew study results. Additional research is needed to better understand how to leverage the placebo effect and when doing so might offer real benefits to patients.

Challenge your mind and body to sharpen your thinking skills

Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Mental and social engagement can help keep your brain sharp and lower the chances of cognitive decline, in part because challenging our brains may help forge new connections between brain cells. The key to taking advantage of the brain’s malleability is to find activities that you truly enjoy and to commit to life-long learning.

Is it ADHD—or Autism?

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism can resemble each other. In fact, it can be difficult to tell the two conditions apart, which can lead to delays in the correct diagnosis — and therefore missed opportunities for treatment. If your child is diagnosed with ADHD, ask your pediatrician about testing for autism as well. The earlier a child with autism receives treatment, the better the outcome he or she will have.

Stress-busting mind-body medicine reduces need for health care

Daniel Pendick
Daniel Pendick, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

Anyone can develop better emotional and psychological resilience through practices such as rhythmic breathing, mindfulness meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, or prayer. These practices not only improve mental health but have real physiological benefits. A recent study found that people who completed a program designed to help bolster resilience actually used fewer health care services compared with those who didn’t take the program, although more studies are needed to know whether such programs could help ease the burdens on the health care system.

A mindful worker is a happier worker

Ronald Siegel, PsyD
Ronald Siegel, PsyD, Contributing Editor

The mental health benefits of mindfulness meditation include greater engagement in your daily activities and a more positive outlook — which can in turn improve your concentration and sense of well-being. But can mindfulness practice really help employees’ mental health? A recent study says yes. Workers participating in mindfulness training found they experienced less stress, anxiety, and depression; improved sleep; fewer aches and pains; and fewer problems getting along with others.

Low-nicotine cigarettes may help determined smokers cut back

Mallika Marshall, MD
Mallika Marshall, MD, Contributing Editor

A study examining the effects of low-nicotine cigarettes on smoking behavior yielded surprising results. The study volunteers who smoked the low-nicotine cigarettes actually smoked less and had fewer cigarette cravings than those who smoked cigarettes with a higher level of nicotine. Although more research is needed before we can draw any conclusions, it’s possible that very-low-nicotine cigarettes might be a way to mitigate the health dangers of smoking for people determined not to quit.

Can hospice care reduce depression in the bereaved?

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Hospice care improves quality of life in the dire circumstances of a person’s last days. It can enable the dying to spend this time in peace, surrounded by family and friends, and in little pain. Studies confirm what many know intuitively. Family members are likely to experience major depression following the loss of a loved one. A recent study published in today’s online JAMA Internal Medicine looked at whether hospice care reduces the severity of bereavement-related depression in people who had recently lost a spouse. While the researchers saw no difference between spouses whose partners were enrolled in hospice and those how weren’t, major depression was less common in spouses who received support from a hospice program.

Pets can help their humans create friendships, find social support

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Pets can provide their owners with more than companionship. A new study, published online in the journal PLoS One, shows that pets can also help create human-to-human friendships and social support, both of which are good for long-term health. The effect isn’t limited to dogs. Other kinds of pets, including cats, rabbits, and snakes, can also be catalysts for making friends and finding social support. In a survey of residents of four cities, being a pet owner was the third most common way that respondents said they met people in their neighborhoods. Pet owners were 60% more likely than non–pet owners to get to know people in their neighborhoods they hadn’t known before. They were also more likely to have reported befriending someone they met through a pet-related connection or getting social support from them. As described in Get Healthy, Get a Dog, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, pet ownership has many direct physical and mental health benefits.

Germanwings Flight 9525 shows the limits of predicting human violence

Michael Craig Miller, M.D.
Michael Craig Miller, M.D., Senior Editor, Mental Health Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

The tragic story of copilot Andreas Lubitz, the man who apparently crashed Germanwings flight 9525 into the Alps in an act of suicide and murder, demonstrates the opaqueness of mental illness. It is difficult to know when a person is struggling with private psychological and emotional pain that might lead to dangerous or destructive behavior. All of us tend to keep our thoughts, especially our most disturbing ones, to ourselves. Even when encouraged to speak those thoughts aloud — to a mental health professional, for example — it is very difficult to do so. This tragedy will likely spark calls for increased scrutiny of pilots. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it could lead to the unintended and undesirable consequence that pilots will become even more wary of seeking help. To honor the lives lost will require policies that protect the public while not being punitive to pilots.

Editorial calls for more research on link between football and brain damage

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Is brain damage an inevitable consequence of American football, an avoidable risk of it, or neither? An editorial published yesterday in the medical journal BMJ poses those provocative questions. Chad Asplund, director of sports medicine at Georgia Regents University, and Thomas Best, professor and chair of sports medicine at Ohio State University, offer an overview of the unresolved connection between playing football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a type of gradually worsening brain damage caused by repeated mild brain injuries or concussions. The big question is whether playing football causes chronic traumatic encephalopathy or whether some people who play football already at higher risk for developing it. The Football Players Health Study at Harvard University hopes to provide a solid answer to that and other health issues that affect professional football players.