A jousting knight wears his heart on his sleeve. Credit: iStock
In medieval times, a jousting knight would wear the colors of the lady he was courting tied around his arm. Hence, the phrase “Wear your heart on your sleeve” was born. Today, we use this romantic phrase to describe someone who expresses their emotions openly. How applicable that ancient phrase really is to maintaining a healthy heart!
In a landmark paper, a group of scientists discussed how stress and social interactions with others affected the health of the heart. It is well-known that stress is a major factor in the development of heart disease. This is because stress is a double whammy: It activates the “fight-or-flight” nervous response, and it causes inflammation in the cells that line blood vessels. Both of these events can damage blood vessels in the heart.
Research shows that positive social interaction expressing emotion is important for heart health. Support from a spouse or partner, friends or other groups can reduce stress and help you stick to a healthy diet and exercise program to minimize your risks.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, with annual deaths creeping up to 24 million. Reducing stress and anxiety is an important aspect of keeping your heart healthy. Exercise, yoga, meditation and even deep breathing can promote a sense of calm when tensions mount. Try running or yoga with a friend or join an exercise class to keep you on track for a healthy heart. Go ahead, wear your heart on your sleeve—it’s good for you!
February is American Heart Month. You can find more information about keeping your ticker ticking on the American Heart Association’s website.
Audrey A. Vasauskas, PhD, is an assistant professor of physiology at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Many of us take our ability to read this blog or see the faces of our families and friends for granted. For the 10–15 million Americans with a disease called age-related macular degeneration (AMD), however, the loss of this ability is a daily and devastating reality. AMD is the most common cause of blindness in people over the age of 60.
There are many causes of visual impairment, including near-sightedness, far-sightedness, infection and diabetes. Some of these can be relatively easily corrected with eyeglasses and other medical tools and procedures. AMD currently has no cure, and we are just beginning to understand its causes.
AMD is a gradual and progressive deterioration of the retina, the light-sensing tissue at the back of the eye. The disease affects the most sensitive portion of the retina called the macula. We use the macula to distinguish fine features and colors, and when we lose this function, it can be devastating. AMD slowly causes the photoreceptors—cells that make up the retina—to die, creating blank spots in the field of vision. This occurs when undigested deposits of molecular debris called drusen accumulate in an area that eventually starves the cells that support the photoreceptors.
Genetics is the main factor that makes you more likely to get AMD. Other causes may include smoking and an unbalanced diet. Avoiding smoking and making healthy dietary choices are good ways to reduce your risk of AMD. A recent study published in the journal Cell Stem Cell found that a substance related to vitamin B3 reduced molecular debris and inflammation related to AMD in patients with the disorder. Fish, meat, peanuts and green vegetables all contain vitamin B3.
As the U.S. population grows older, diseases such as AMD are likely to become more prevalent and have a higher social and economic burden than they did in the past. Researchers are actively working to better understand the causes of the disease and how to treat and prevent it.
February is Age-Related Macular Degeneration and Low Vision Awareness Month. If you haven’t had your eyes checked yet this year, now is a good time to make that appointment.
Grant Kolar, MD, PhD, is an assistant research professor of pathology and ophthalmology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.
Winter is here, and for much of the country, it’s going to stick around for a while. When exposure to frosty air and the constant hum of the heat pump continue for too long, you may end up with dry, itchy skin. We know that scratching an itch feels good, but why?
Researchers studied brain activity in two groups of volunteers. One group had chronic itching problems, and the other did not. The chronic itch group had more activity in the area of the brain involved with movement than the non-itchy group. This boost in activity means their brains were “wired” to scratch.
The non-itchy volunteers were then treated with an irritant that made their skin itch. The research team found that when the healthy volunteers scratched an itch, the reward center in the brain lit up. In other words, scratching feels good even if you don’t have a chronic skin condition.
Slathering yourself with moisturizer and drinking more water can help hydrate the skin—your largest organ—and keep winter itches at bay. But sometimes you just want relief from a good—yet gentle— scratch. Now you know that your brain is giving you permission to indulge.
– Erica Roth
The start of a new year can feel like a fresh slate or an unwritten book. It’s a chance for many of us to resolve to do things better (eating, exercising) or to stop doing certain things altogether (smoking). But most people don’t succeed in sticking to their resolutions in the long term, and the reason might surprise you. It’s not always a question of lacking willpower or being lazy. Keeping resolutions makes your brain work hard, and that mental effort takes time and practice.
Researchers from the University of Minnesota found that your brain uses more than one decision-making system to build and regulate habit-forming and goal-directed behaviors. One system looks at the steps you take to make a decision. Another evaluates your actions and decides when you need to change a new behavior in order to receive a reward.
Here’s where the hard work comes in: The researchers explain that goal-directed behavior requires mental energy and planning. You have to plan ahead before making decisions to know how to reach your goal. Let’s say, for example, you’re trying to cut back on sweets and are invited to a party. If you want to enjoy a dessert at the party but don’t want to completely ignore your resolution, you’ll need to plan to eat less sugar during the rest of the day. Over time, as you keep making more goal-oriented decisions, the choices become more automatic.
Another study suggests that nerve cells stick together when you form a habit that you’ve enjoyed (such as eating dessert after dinner). The strong bond they create can be tough to break, and—like getting up early to go running or sticking to that diet—it isn’t always easy. This is especially the case when your emotions take over and you feel resentful or angry at the challenging changes you’re trying to make. Being mindful and keeping your emotions out of the decision-making process can help. Your brain, like your body, just needs time to adjust to your new routines.
Good luck and happy new year.
– Erica Roth
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 C. Taylor, PhD, is an assistant professor of physiology in the College of Osteopathic Medicine at William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Miss.
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
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 A. Vasauskas, PhD, is an assistant professor of physiology at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine.
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.
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.
Barb Goodman, PhD, is a professor of physiology at the University of South Dakota.
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.
Benjamin 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.