Exercise: It does a body—no, your brain—good!

Brain

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It’s 7:30 a.m., I’m looking for my keys, grabbing my bag and herding everyone out of the door as we hurry off to school and work. Wait! One more trip back into the house for the forgotten homework assignment, a lunchbox and … it seems I have forgotten several things. Is it stress, lack of sleep or just the natural aging process? Regardless, it seems I need a memory-boosting workout.

Exercise is no longer just for affecting the size of your muscles, but also the size of your brain. As we age, the volume of our brain naturally decreases. However, in people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, one of the numerous cognitive diseases under the dementia umbrella, there is a more marked decrease in brain volume. Being physically active has been shown to slow or even stop the decrease in brain volume in older people, even among those at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans issued by the U.S. Department for Health and Human Services state that adults should get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity—such as walking, running, swimming and cycling—each week to promote and maintain health. These and other forms of moderate-intensity exercise have also been positively linked to maintenance of memory and learning as we age.

According to a recent study in the research journal Alzheimer’s and Dementia, reaching recommended physical activity goals has substantial effects on brain volume. Ninety-one adults ranging from ages 50 to 74 wore an accelerometer, a device which records and measures the wearer’s steps and speed of movement, for seven days. Subjects who performed physical activity for 150 minutes or more per week had temporal lobe sections that were 5–6 percent larger than their sedentary counterparts. The temporal lobe of the brain is associated with learning and memory. This sustained brain volume associated with physical activity was noted among people with a family history of Alzheimer’s disease, those who have the Alzheimer’s associated gene and those who were not at high risk.

The moral of the story? Get up and move. Your brain will remember to thank you.

 

Jessica Taylor updated 6-1-2016 Jessica C. Taylor, PhD, is an assistant professor of physiology in the College of Osteopathic Medicine at William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Miss.

Can Alcohol Cause Irregular Heartbeat?

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Alcohol and heart health have a complicated relationship. Recent research suggests that moderate drinking may reduce your risk of stroke. But for some people, even one or two drinks a day may increase the risk of a form of heart disease called atrial fibrillation (AFib).

AFib is an irregular heartbeat of the two upper chambers of the heart (atria). During an episode of AFib, the atria beat quickly and out of synch with the lower chambers of the heart (ventricles). This irregular pattern can cause blood to clot in the heart, which also increases the risk of stroke.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association suggests that over time, moderate alcohol consumption may cause the left atrium to become larger. The enlargement of the heart chamber can lead to AFib in some cases. This is one of the first studies to show in a large population of humans that structural changes in the heart can cause AFib. Previously, AFib had been thought to arise as a result of problems with the electrical impulses in the heart.

For most people who follow a heart-healthy diet, exercise and don’t have high cholesterol or high blood pressure, the occasional drink probably won’t hurt or lead to AFib. However, it’s a good idea to be aware of the alcohol-related heart disease risk as office parties and family gatherings get into full swing this holiday season.

Learn more about atrial fibrillation from the Mayo Clinic

Erica Roth

Handling the Pain of Acid Reflux at Holiday Time

Acid reflux

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With Thanksgiving coming up, eating—of all things rich, indulgent and delicious—is top of mind for many Americans. But for people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), eating this type of food often and in large quantities can be a challenge. This week is GERD Awareness Week, a good time to learn how to prevent GERD symptoms and still enjoy your holiday season.

GERD is the return of stomach contents, including acid, into the esophagus, sometimes known as acid reflux. More than 60 million people in the U.S. experience GERD symptoms, such as frequent heartburn, at least once a month.

You may have a higher risk of having GERD if you:

  • produce a lot of gastric acid
  • have a hiatal hernia
  • have a weak lower esophageal sphincter (the ring of muscle between the esophagus and stomach)
  • are obese
  • smoke
  • drink alcohol or a lot of caffeine

Women have additional risk factors, including being a young adult and adopting a stooping or slouching posture. Certain foods, including peppermint, chocolate, fatty or fried foods, and acidic fruits, also raise the risk of developing heartburn and acid reflux.

Simple dietary and lifestyle changes can be effective for many people to reduce the frequency and intensity of GERD symptoms, including:

  • losing weight if needed
  • quitting smoking
  • eating small meals throughout the day
  • avoiding foods that cause symptoms
  • waiting at least two hours before lying down after a meal

Another first line of treatment is medication, such as antacids or proton pump inhibitors. These drugs are available over the counter and by prescription from your doctor and reduce or stop the production of stomach acid to prevent symptoms.

If occasional heartburn bothers you after a big meal, try making lifestyle changes to help you feel better. If your symptoms persist, your doctor may look deeper into the possible causes for your discomfort. Knowing the risk factors for GERD can help you avoid complications and stay healthy throughout the holidays and all year long.

To learn more about GERD, visit the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website

 

layla-al-nakkashLayla Al-Nakkash, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Physiology, at Midwestern University, Glendale, Ariz. She is the course director for medical physiology for medical and podiatry students. Her area of research relates to understanding how intestinal dysfunction (in diseases such as cystic fibrosis and diabetes) can be ameliorated by changes in diet.

Nanoparticles: A High-Tech Solution for Lung Cancer Treatment

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Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death for both men and women in the U.S., according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Responsible for 1 in 4 cancer deaths, there were approximately 224,390 new cases and 158,000 lung cancer deaths in 2016 alone.

Despite the seemingly grim outlook for lung cancer patients, many people diagnosed with the disease are cured. The key for these positive outcomes is early cancer detection and treatment. A number of new and innovative therapies have been developed that have contributed greatly to the prolonged survival of patients. However, as the statistics show, there is still a vital need for better treatment options to further improve survival rates.

A main focus in cancer research has been to target the cell communication that causes normal cells to change into cancerous cells. Our understanding of these processes has grown significantly during the past decade, and scientists have been able to point to a number of proteins that are involved in this transformation. Recently, a group of scientists combined its knowledge of these cellular processes with a high-tech anti-cancer drug delivery method to wipe out lung cancer cells. They used nanoparticles with a drug that specifically targeted a protein known to be involved in this cell-changing process. Nanoparticles are very tiny particles between 1 and 100 nanometers—about 1,000 times smaller than a cell—that are made of special material depending on their use. Here, they used a special type of nanoparticle that allowed the drug to get into the lung cancer cells.

In addition to new therapies to fight cancer, there are low-tech ways you can reduce your cancer risk. One of the main causes of lung cancer is smoking tobacco products. The No. 1 way to stay healthy is to avoid tobacco, including smokeless tobacco products, which can also cause cancer. Tomorrow, November 17, is the Great American Smokeout—a good day to make a commitment to quit. ACS has a number of stop-smoking resources available on its website. Additionally, eating healthy and staying active will reduce your risk for cancer-related illness.

audrey-vasauskasAudrey A. Vasauskas, PhD, is an assistant professor of physiology at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine.

The Proof Is in the Papers: APS’s Long History with the Nobel Prize

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2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine winner Yoshinori Ohsumi. Credit: ShuraRB Ufa/Flickr

Last month, Yoshinori Ohsumi of the Tokyo Institute of Technology was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Dr. Ohsumi won for his research in autophagy, the mechanism that cells use to break themselves down—an essential function in all cells.

The Nobel Prize, arguably the most prestigious award in the life sciences, was established by Alfred Nobel. A wealthy scientist and inventor, Nobel stipulated in his will that the Physiology or Medicine prize was to be awarded to researchers who “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” in the past year.

According to the Nobel website, this prize “is commonly referred to as the Nobel Prize in Medicine. The wording in Alfred Nobel’s will, however, is Physiology or Medicine. It is important to make this distinction since, in the days of Alfred Nobel, physiology was used to describe what is today a number of biological fields.” Indeed, many specialized fields of science and medicine—neuroscience, biochemistry, endocrinology, pharmacology and pathology to name a few—have their roots in physiology. For us at the American Physiological Society (APS), the inclusion of physiology underscores the fundamental importance of this area of research to so many scientific and medical advances that we benefit from today.

Since the first prize was awarded in 1901, 76 researchers who went on to win a Nobel have published their work in APS journals. Many of their discoveries explained how our bodies work, spurred new technologies and led to the development of treatments for diseases such as anemia, diabetes and cancer. Check out our Nobel Laureates page to learn more about these scientists, the research that won them the prize and the articles they published in the APS journals.

Stacy Brooks

Are You at Risk for Type 2 Diabetes?

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During American Diabetes Month in November, you may notice more people are talking about diabetes, a disease that affects 29 million Americans. It’s a great time to learn more about diabetes and the ways that you can decrease or manage your risk of developing the disease.

Diabetes mellitus is a problem with how your body handles blood glucose (sugar). People who have type 2 diabetes aren’t able to use the hormone insulin properly to remove glucose from the bloodstream for use in the fat and muscle cells.  Ultimately, this causes people with type 2 diabetes to have higher than normal levels of glucose in their blood.

You may have heard that someone who is overweight and has a large, apple-shaped body is more likely to develop metabolic syndrome—a group of health conditions such as elevated blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels—which may increase the risk of developing diabetes.  However, there are a number of less well known risk factors for type 2 diabetes including:

Some research even links non-health-related factors such as job security to an increased diabetes risk. A recent study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal  analyzed data from 19 different studies including almost 141,000 participants which suggested that job insecurity was associated with a modest increased risk of diabetes.  Job insecurity has also been associated with weight gain (a diabetes risk factor) and coronary artery disease (a complication of diabetes).

Recognizing risk factors for diabetes and dealing with them, if possible, is important for both children and adults. Consuming a healthy, nutrient-rich diet and staying physically active can help maintain weight, manage stress and avoid type 2 diabetes and its many related complications. To learn more about ways to prevent diabetes, visit the American Diabetes Association website.

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Barb Goodman, PhD, is a professor of physiology at the University of South Dakota.

The Physiology of a Good Scare

Young scared couple is watching horror on TV.

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With Halloween next week, you may be planning to head to a haunted house or cozy up on the couch with popcorn and a horror flick. Either way, you’re probably hoping for a good scare.

Enjoying the thrill of a scary movie or riding a rollercoaster isn’t the same as a real life-threatening situation, but your body doesn’t always know the difference. This is because the same senses are triggered when you’re startled in a safe environment as when there’s a genuinely fearful situation. Whether the fear is real or fake, your body leaps into action to prepare for whatever is going to unfold:

  • Your cardiovascular system pumps more blood and your heart beats faster.
  • Your brain sends adrenaline to your skeletal muscles, getting ready to move.
  • Your pupils dilate so you can see better.
  • Your digestive system slows down until the threat has passed.

Referred to as the “fight or flight” response, the human body functions similarly to how it would have thousands of years ago when faced literally with these two options: fight (for food or for your life, for example) or flight (run away).

During the physiological reaction to fear, scientists believe the brain stimulates the production of dopamine, a chemical that activates the pleasure center of the brain. Many people enjoy the feeling of a good scare and pursue other thrill-seeking behaviors to get the same “high.” Research suggests that thrill-seekers may have different brain chemistry than those who don’t enjoy a heart-pounding experience. If you don’t like to be scared, skip the tricks, enjoy the treats and remember to breathe deeply during this spooky season.

No matter where you fall on the scare scale, be safe this Halloween!

Erica Roth

The Young Qualities of Old Muscle

Senior Adults Taking Spin Class

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Decline, decrease, deteriorate—all words associated with the aging process. Preventing “D” words is important to keep older people healthy. The loss of muscle is one of the most obvious age-related decreases we experience. Bulky muscles on a person that lifts a lot of weights or the sleek tone of a person that runs a lot of miles shows you that muscles of young people are amazing in their ability to change with the demands put on them. Scientists call this ability to change “plasticity.” When and why does muscle plasticity decline?

As individuals age, large muscle fibers that allow explosive types of movements, such as jumping or lifting a heavy weight, disappear more than small muscle fibers that allow slow, low-force movements such as grabbing a cup or adjusting posture. A recent Journal of Applied Physiology podcast discusses a research article that looked at small, medium and large muscle fibers from a group of subjects who were ages 87 to 90. At this age a substantial decline in strength is expected. However, the study showed that even though large muscle fibers are lost in old age, medium-sized muscle fibers become very strong for their size to compensate for that loss. The amount of force the medium-sized fibers could generate for their size was greater than muscle fibers from a group of young subjects and was similar to a world-class sprinting athlete. Therefore, the medium-sized fibers in the muscle of a very old group of subjects were plastic and adapted to the loss of bigger more explosive muscle fibers.

Future research is needed to determine if this plasticity is apparent in all old individuals or whether it was unique to this group that was still fairly active. Also, it is still unknown why some types of fibers keep this plasticity and others do not. Although older muscle does decline, decrease and deteriorate, plasticity appears to remain, which provides an interesting avenue to prevent the “D” words.

Ben MillerBenjamin Miller, PhD, is an associate professor in the department of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University. He co-directs the Translational Research in Aging and Chronic Disease (TRACD) Laboratory with Karyn Hamilton, PhD.

Keeping Up with the Highland Natives

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Machu Picchu. Credit: Anne Crecelius

After spending three weeks getting to know the geography of Chile and making important connections with other academics, I treated myself to some tourist activity in Peru, Chile’s neighbor to the north. I met my mother in Lima, and we began a nine-day tour to visit the famous Incan sites of the Andes.

One major concern for travelers who visit mountainous regions is adjusting to a higher altitude. Upon our arrival in Cusco (11,200 feet above sea level), we quickly departed for a bit lower elevation in Ollantaytambo (9,160 feet) to allow our bodies to adjust to the high altitude. This type of itinerary is common for visitors to help minimize the chance of acute mountain sickness.

As we began to explore the Incan ruins of the Sacred Valley, it quickly became obvious that the altitude challenged most of the tourists (we were no exception!), but the many native tour guides seemed unaffected. Many native highlanders were also working as porters, not only hiking the famous Inca Trail, but carrying heavy loads with ease while doing so. I wondered how they made it look so easy.

Highland natives have long been studied in an attempt to understand how they have adapted to altitude over time and how their genes affect their adaptation. However, given the semi-remote locations where many of these populations live (the Andes, the Himalayas, etc.) and the small number of people participating in research studies, questions still remain.

A recent review article tried to answer the “nature vs. nurture” question as to why high-altitude natives are able to perform so well at high altitude. On the nature side, genes may regulate the ability for highlanders to maintain higher levels of oxygen in their blood. On the nurture side, it appears there are important changes in the lungs of high-altitude natives at very early ages that increase their efficiency in gas exchange in the lungs as adults. Gas exchange is one of the important factors in aerobic capacity (VO2) and the ability to perform work or exercise. Essentially, the natives develop greater breathing efficiency at high altitude, even when compared to lowlanders that have acclimatized or adjusted over a number of days.

Between catching my breath and thinking about the physiological challenges my body faced, I was able to enjoy the Peruvian landscapes and the rich Incan history. The highland natives of Peru are not only physiologically impressive but gracious hosts as well!

anne-crecelius-wanya-picchu-croppedThis post concludes a three-part series by physiologist Anne Crecelius, PhD, chronicling her summer of research and travels through South America. (Read part one and part two.) Crecelius is assistant professor at the University of Dayton.

Depression + Pregnancy = Diabetes?

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Morning sickness, swollen ankles and a growing belly are just a few of the many physiological changes that women experience during pregnancy. The changes  we can see are just the tip of the iceberg. Blood volume, bones, heart rate, skin and many other parts of a woman’s body function differently during pregnancy.

Pregnancy-related changes can sometimes lead to more serious health consequences for mother and baby during pregnancy and beyond. For example, gestational diabetes—a temporary condition in which the body can’t process sugar during pregnancy the way it usually does—can lead to a higher risk of other pregnancy complications, including having a large baby and increased chances of developing diabetes mellitus down the road. Now researchers have found a link between gestational diabetes and depression during pregnancy, a condition which affects an estimated 13 percent of moms-to-be.

A recent study showed that women who had more symptoms of depression in the first and second trimesters were at the greatest risk of developing gestational diabetes. The study also found that women who had gestational diabetes were four times more likely to develop postpartum depression after giving birth. Researchers say the relationship between the two conditions needs more study, but they think that the chemical changes in the brain that occur with depression during pregnancy may affect how we break down sugar.

These links emphasize the need to tune in to emotional shifts that many pregnant women experience. When crying jags and lack of energy lasts for more than two weeks or if symptoms get increasingly worse, it may be more than just pregnancy hormones at work. Women should also look out for the physical symptoms of depression which may include:

  • headaches
  • general aches and pains
  • stomach problems
  • loss of appetite (which may sometimes be mistaken for a side effect of morning sickness)

Now that doctors are learning more about the link between depression and gestational diabetes, they can monitor their patients more closely for both conditions during pregnancy. For more information about depression during and after pregnancy, visit the federal Office on Women’s Health website.

Erica Roth