Booster Shots

Oddities, musings and news from the health world

Category: behavior

Women with gambling problems might point to genes, but that doesn't mean they should

June 9, 2010 |  7:13 am

Dice Now women with gambling problems can blame their genes just as much as men can, so finds a study published Monday in Archives of General Psychiatry.

In attempting to analyze the causes of pathological gambling among women, researchers at the University of Missouri and the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Australia conducted interviews with 2,889 twin pairs, 57% of whom were women. They then analyzed the results.

They write in their conclusion:

"This study represents a major step forward in that it establishes for the first time that genes are as important in the etiology of [disordered gambling] in women as they are in men. ... The susceptibility genes contributing to variation in liability for [disordered gambling] may also overlap considerably in men and women."

Here's the abstract of the women-and-gambling study.

But don't be too quick to take this as license to go broke. Other new research suggests that the very people who should change their behavior are the ones most likely to use their genes as an excuse.

Those findings, to be published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine, are based on a survey about physical activity, smoking, alcohol consumption and other activities. Says a National Institutes of Health news release about the genes-and-behavior study:

"People with more habits that put their health at risk tended to favor genetics to explain health conditions. They also tended to place less value on learning about how health habits affect disease risk."

That research is to be published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

-- Tami Dennis

Photo credit: Bob Carey / Los Angeles Times

Book Review: 'The Longevity Prescription' by Robert N. Butler

June 5, 2010 |  5:52 pm

Longevity Is 80 the new 50? It is when you compare Americans' average life expectancy today -- about 78 -- with what it was a century ago, when the average American lived to about  50.

In "The Longevity Prescription," Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Butler writes that this three-decade dividend, as he calls it, doesn't have to be lived out in declining health as many assume.

Common ailments such as heart disease, arthritis and lung problems are arriving a full decade later than they did 100 years ago. This suggests that we have it within our power to increase the chances of staying healthy longer, says Butler, founding president of the International Longevity Center and founder of the National Institute of Health's National Institute on Aging. 

Genes play only a small part in longevity, he says -- studies consistently find a link of 5% to 35% between parent and child. He says research clearly shows that a healthy lifestyle can make a big difference in helping people live longer and push back or avoid the onset of chronic illness, lack of mobility and cognitive decline.

Of course, this won't be news to many. There has been a steady flow of research and stories for years suggesting that good health habits can make a difference. What Butler has done in his beautifully written new book is integrate these findings with inspiring stories, clear explanations, compassionate advice and step-by-step strategies to offer an easy-to-follow prescription for a more healthy life.

Yes, most people know they should be getting regular sleep, reducing stress, eating better, exercising more, getting preventive care and nurturing their relationships -- all topics in the book. It's putting these things into practice that can be the hard part. This is where "The Longevity Prescription" is particularly useful.

Want to keep your brain in good working order? He prescribes "cognitive calisthenics": Find an activity that challenges your brain and invest at least 20 minutes a day, five days a week in it, monitoring progress and increasing challenges. His suggestions include turning off the TV, bookmarking a favorite news website, learning a word a day, reading a book or an e-book, learning to play an instrument, memorizing a poem, playing puzzles, pursuing a passion.

He writes that a good marriage at age 50 has been shown to be a better predictor of good health at age 80 than a low cholesterol count. But friendship is priceless as well, he says.

If you need a little primer on enriching or deepening friendships, he suggests first finding three friendships important to you: one healthy and active, one dormant and one broken. Examine all three for lessons good and bad and try to put them in good working order. Then he offers practical suggestions for doing so, among them: Be a listener, think before you speak, practice forgiveness, be positive, try out tolerance, say no when necessary, don't be smothering, be accessible, keep in touch. 

Not rocket science, right? But invaluable advice all the same. Each chapter of Butler's book offers similarly common-sense suggestions and ideas. He starts with a quiz you can take to rate your "longevity index" and ends with a contract to fill out, committing yourself to taking good care of your health.

-- Anne Colby

Photo: "The Longevity Prescription: The 8 Proven Keys to a Long, Healthy Life," Robert N. Butler MD, Avery, $26. 


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Young adults tending to a romance have less substance use

June 3, 2010 |  6:00 am

Marriage usually helps stabilize behavior. Studies show, for example, that people are less likely to use drugs and drink once wedded. The same behavior appears true of young adults in romantic relationships, according to a new study.

Love Researchers examined surveys of 909 people who were followed beginning in first or second grade up through two years after high school. They found the typical person of age 19 or 20 who not in a stable relationship was much more likely -- about 40% -- to use marijuana and drink heavily compared with someone who was in a relationship. The researchers controlled for other factors that affect drinking and drug use, such as employment status. The people who were not in relationships were less likely than their dating peers to have used marijuana or alcohol in high school, however.

"For these individuals, the new freedoms of early adulthood and lack of social control from a partner posed the greatest risks in terms of escalation of substance use," the authors wrote.

It could be that young people in relationships are getting support from their romantic partner that helps them avoid substances or that they are spending less time hanging out with substance-abusing friends or in bars.

"Even dating relationships activate mechanisms of support and control, although to a lesser extent than more serious relationship statuses of cohabitation or marriage," the authors wrote. "These findings show how bonding, adopting the behavior patterns of a partner and the interaction between these two processes influence substance use in early adulthood."

"I'm not saying that we should set up dating services," the lead author of the study, Charles Fleming, a research scientist at the University of Washington, said in a news release. "But it's something for parents to know and it's something for other people who are working with young adults of this age to know."

The study was published Wednesday in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Allen J. Schaben  /  Los Angeles Times

Book Review: 'The Winner's Brain' by Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske with Liz Neporent

May 29, 2010 |  6:48 pm

Why are some people highly successful in life, while others just get by? Authors Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske say the difference between the high-achieving and the merely average is due not to IQs, life circumstances, financial resources, social connections or luck but to the workings of the brain. 

In "The Winner's Brain," Brown, a Harvard cognitive-behavioral psychologist, and Fenske, a neuroscientist, present evidence showing that the brains of the high-achieving operate differently from those of the average person. Brain scans measuring neutral activity show these processes at work, they say.

The good news, according to Brown and Fenske, is that the brain can be reshaped and rewired by employing the strategies successful people use to overcome obstacles and reach their goals. 

"The brain is active and subject to change no matter what you do -- this is one of the key discoveries of modern neuroscience," they write. "What sets the owner of a Winner's Brain apart is the desire and the know-how to take charge of the process."

Brown and Fenske say that transforming your thinking, emotions and behavior as well as the physical structure of your brain is not unlike doing bicep curls to reshape and add inches to your arms. 

The authors have identified five "brainpower tools" commonly used by successful people: seeing opportunity where others don't, accurately gauging and being willing to take risks, being able to stay focused on a goal, possessing the energy to take action and being able to accurately assess one's strengths and weaknesses.

Continue reading »

Gratitude for even the little things keeps romance alive

May 26, 2010 |  7:00 am

Picking up a pint of ice cream. Issuing a compliment. Doing your partner's chores. All are small acts that provoke gratitude and strengthen relationships, say the authors of a new study.

Rose Researchers studied 65 couples who were in committed, satisfying relationships and tracked the day-to-day fluctuations in relationship satisfaction -- the so-called "ups and downs." The researchers found that feelings of gratitude boost the health of relationships. Both the giver and the receiver of an act of kindness benefit, said the lead author of the study, Sara Algoe, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The emotion of gratitude helps people find and then bond to people who care about their welfare, the study finds.

"Gratitude triggers a cascade of responses within the person who feels it in that very moment, changing the way the person views the generous benefactor, as well as motivations toward the benefactor," Algoe said in a news release. "This is especially true when a person shows that they care about the partner's needs and preferences."

The study is published online in the journal Personal Relationships.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Robert Lachman  /  Los Angeles Times

Why overhearing cellphone conversations is annoying

May 20, 2010 |  9:46 am

Cellphone1 It's OK. You're not being unreasonably grumpy when you become irritated by a nearby cellphone conversation. A new study shows why the ever-present cellphone conversations going on around us -- in the grocery store, mall, airport, elevator, on the bus, etc. -- feel so intrusive.

Cellphones have made phone conversations ubiquitous. But many people confess to feeling a bit startled, then irritated, when they hear speech, think someone is talking to them and then realize the person nearby is talking to someone else on the phone. It turns out that our brains just don't like this phenomenon. Researchers at Cornell University conducted a series of tests to gauge people's reactions when exposed to four background noise settings: silence, a monologue, a conversation between two people and half a conversation (called a halfalogue). The study participants were seated at computers and asked to perform various cognitive tests while exposed to one of the three sounds or silence.

The study showed that hearing the halfalogue was the only background noise that distracted the study participants and lowered their scores on the cognitive tests. For some reason, our brains are unable to tune out half a conversation. Researchers believe this is because we can't predict the speech pattern of a halfalogue the way we can with a monologue or two-way conversation -- making it harder to ignore.

Besides the mere annoyance factor, halfalogues can result in impaired performance in some settings, such as in a car. "These results suggest that a driver's attention can be impaired by a passenger's cellphone conversation," the authors wrote.

The study also provides more evidence that we understand speech, in part, by anticipating what someone will say.

"We believe this finding helps reveal how we understand language in conversation," the lead author of the study, Lauren Emberson, said in a news release. "We actively predict what the person is going to say next and this reduces the difficulty of language comprehension."

The study will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.

-- Shari Roan

Photo: Anja Niedringhaus / Associated Press

Book Review: 'The Stress-Eating Cure' by Rachael F. Heller and Richard F. Heller

May 15, 2010 |  1:57 pm


Many dieters will see themselves in the portraits of overeaters presented in “The Stress-Eating Cure,” by Rachael F. Heller and Richard F. Heller, authors of the popular “Carbohydrate Addict” books. 

The Hellers write in their new book about the anxiety-induced stress eater, the task-avoiding stress eater, the person who eats on the sly. They describe people whose overeating is triggered by social situations, those who eat to reward themselves for self-sacrifice and others who eat on the run, barely tasting their food.

The 11 types of stress eaters they identify have something in common, they say: Their overeating, cravings and weight gain are caused not by a lack of discipline and willpower but by a hormonal imbalance.

Unlike those whose bodies produce the right amount of hormones in the face of unpleasant circumstances, stress eaters -- who often are more sensitive to their environments -- respond to stress with “trigger-quick” hormonal reactions, the Hellers say. The hormones at play are ghrelin, serotonin, oxytocin and leptin as well as insulin, cortisol and adrenaline. 

Each type of stress eater is prone to surges and deficiencies in these hormones in different combinations, the authors say. The Hellers offer a diet they say will help bring these hormones back into balance and relieve stress, plus behavioral modification programs that are tailored to each type.

Continue reading »

For depression, therapy should focus on thoughts rather than behavior

May 13, 2010 | 10:24 am

Cognitive behavioral therapy can be effective for even severely depressed people, but the therapy should focus on changing how people think instead of focusing on how they behave, according to a new study.

Encouraging behavior changes to improve mood appears to make a lot of sense. Depressed people are often advised to go for a walk, visit friends and schedule activities. But it may be more helpful for therapists to work with patients on their thought processes, such as challenging negative thoughts and replacing those thoughts with more positive and realistic ideas. Researchers at Ohio State University studied 60 patients with severe depression. Various therapists treated the patients and the sessions were analyzed to rate how much the therapists relied on cognitive and behavioral methods of therapy. The patients completed questionnaires to track their depression.

The study found that patients improved when therapists focused on cognitive techniques but didn't improve when therapists focused on behavioral techniques. The effects of cognitive techniques were strongest in the first few weeks of therapy. The patients who improved the most also were the ones who collaborated with the therapist on a treatment plan and who followed the plan.

"If you're a patient and willing to fully commit to the therapy process, our data suggest you will see more benefit," the lead author of the study, Daniel Strunk, said in a news release. The study is published online in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy.

-- Shari Roan

Parkinson's meds and compulsive behaviors: a strong link

May 10, 2010 |  1:00 pm

Here's a perplexing medical irony: For Parkinson's disease patients, initiating certain voluntary movements such as walking and rising from a chair can be difficult. But the medications that help ease the challenging motor symptoms of Parkinson's seem to make it harder for some patients to halt certain behaviors that can be rewarding or pleasurable -- gambling, buying, eating, sexual stimulation.

While physicians have known about the link between Parkinson's medication and compulsive gambling since about 2005, little was known about how many patients are affected this way, whether the compulsive behavior went beyond gambling for some, and whether this is clearly a medication-induced problem. A study in the Archives of Neurology released Monday answers those questions.

Some 13.6% of Parkinson's Disease patients taking levodopa or one of the dopamine-agonist medications widely used for the movement disorder show clear signs of some impulse-control disorder. That rate was between 2 and 3.3 times higher among Parkinson's patients being treated with these medications than among patients who did not take them. About a quarter of those patients suffered from more than one type of compulsive behavior.

Compulsive buying was the most common manifestation of such impulse-control problems, affecting 5.9% of all medicated patients; 5% experienced problem or pathological gambling;  4.3% engaged in binge eating behaviors; and 3.5% engaged in compulsive sexual behavior.

Compulsive buying and binge eating were more common among women patients than among men; compulsive sexual behavior afflicted more men than women. The researchers also found some evidence that genetic inheritance might make some patients more vulnerable to these side effects of Parkinson's disease medicine: Patients were far more likely to develop compulsive buying, eating or gambling behaviors if they had a first-degree relative with a known gambling problem.

Finally, the study, which included 3,090 Parkinson's disease patients, found that those taking a combination of levodopa and one of the other dopamine-agonist medications (including pramipexole and ropinirole) were most likely to develop an impulse-control disorder; those on a dopamine agonist without levodopa were slightly less likely to develop such behavioral problems; and those on levodopa alone were about half as likely as the first two groups to develop impulse-control problems.

Researchers are gleaning insights into why and how some people become addicted to substances or behaviors from the experiences of Parkinson's patients. Here's a terrific overview of the curious link between Parkinson's medications and compulsion.

But you don't need to be a Parkinson's patient to have a compulsive behavior problem. Have a look here if gambling is your weakness; here if you compulsively seek out sexual stimulation; here if you buy or shop compulsively; and here if you think you might have a binge-eating problem.

-- Melissa Healy

Book Review: 'For Better' by Tara Parker-Pope

May 8, 2010 |  2:18 pm

For better One of the perks of being a journalist is that it can give professional license to explore subjects of personal interest and to knock on doors closed to most people -- all in the course of doing your job.

Author Tara Parker-Pope has made the most of that opportunity with her excellent new book, "For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage."

Parker-Pope, who writes about health in her Well blog for the New York Times, said she became interested in the science of marriage when her own 17-year union began to founder.

She sought help in making sense of the situation but was put off by the platitudes she found in self-help books. "I knew where to look for answers about heart disease, diabetes, allergies, and numerous other health issues, and I wanted the same objective, evidence-based advice about my marriage," she writes.

As she ventured into scientific databases, she was surprised  to discover a large body of research on marriage and relationships that offered practical advice about marital health. She said she realized that basic scientific truths she uncovered could have helped her see the signs of trouble earlier in her marriage.

In "For Better," Parker-Pope seeks to help other people make better choices and save or strengthen their own relationships. Her passion for the subject creates a driving momentum that propels the reader through the book as she attempts to answer the question, "What makes a good marriage?"  

Continue reading »


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