Booster Shots

Oddities, musings and news from the health world

Category: mental health

How are sadness and happiness like diseases? They're infectious, study finds

July 8, 2010 | 12:20 pm

Face Is sadness a sickness? It appears to spread like one, a new study has found.

Researchers at Harvard University and MIT wanted to see if a mathematical model developed to track and predict the spread of infectious diseases such as SARS and foot-and-mouth disease could also apply to the spread of happiness -- and found that it worked. 

They used data collected from 1,880 subjects in the Framingham Heart Study, a long-term research effort that has followed subjects since 1948 (and added some new ones along the way), giving them physical and emotional exams every two years. At each visit, subjects were classified as content, discontent or neutral. The researchers monitored how these emotional states changed over time and how these changes depended on the emotions of the people with whom the participants came into contact.

When the information was put into a traditional infectious-disease simulation, slightly modified to reflect the unique qualities of emotional spread rather than actual disease, the researchers found a correlation between an individual's emotional state and those of the person's contacts.

In other words, it appears that you can catch happiness. Or sadness. Moreover, the "recovery time" doesn't depend on your contacts at all, which is a hallmark of diseases but surprising in an emotional context, since continuing contact with happy or sad people could be expected to affect one's emotional state even after the initial "infection."

People were found to "recover" (return to neutral) more quickly from discontent than from content; on average, a contentedness "infection" sticks around for 10 years, but it takes only five years to recover from discontent. While this may still seem like a long time, the work focused on long-term emotional states because they are more accurate measures of general life satisfaction than fleeting moods, which are already known to be contagious (think laughter).

On the other hand, sadness is more contagious than happiness: A single discontent contact doubles one's chances of becoming unhappy, while a happy contact increases the probability of becoming content by only 11%.

Researchers also found one way that emotions act differently than diseases -- they can arise due to events in your own life, such as a promotion or a disease diagnosis, rather than solely being "contagious." In another win for the good guys, it appears that happiness is more likely to come about spontaneously than is sadness.

A report of the emotions-as-diseases research has been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

-- Rachel Bernstein

Photo: We may recover from sadness more quickly than we do from happiness, but it appears to be more infectious. Credit: Reuters

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

Prism Awards spotlight addiction, mental health

April 23, 2010 |  3:25 pm

No industry likes to give itself accolades more than Hollywood, but an award ceremony last night was a little different. The Prism Awards honored actors, television shows and movies that honestly portray depictions of mental health issues and addiction, plus tobacco, drug and alcohol use.

L1b8pjnc Among the winners were Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal, stars of the film "Crazy Heart," Hector Elizondo and Tony Shalhoub for the TV show "Monk," and the film "The Soloist." Television shows singled out included "How I Met Your Mother," "Breaking Bad" and "The Celebrity Apprentice." You can read more about the winners in the Envelope. The awards are produced by the Entertainment Industries Council Inc. in collaboration with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the FX Network. The awards took place at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

"The Prism Awards recognizes and applauds the remarkable efforts that have been contributed by our creative community," said EIC's President and Chief Executive Brian Dyak, in a news release. "We salute those in the entertainment industry that promote informational truths in their work to improve the lives of the audiences they entertain. Through accurate character portrayals and inspired storytelling, our industry reinforces the importance of those individuals within the care giving and health fields."

Considering how often Hollywood is criticized for its portrayal of issues such as substance abuse and mental health, no doubt the celebs, producers, etc. welcomed this bit of good publicity.

-- Jeannine Stein

Photo: Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Crazy Heart." Credit: Lorey Sebastian / Associated Press

Book Review: 'The Strong Women's Guide to Total Health' by Miriam E. Nelson and Jennifer Ackerman

April 10, 2010 |  3:45 pm

StrongWomencoverAlthough men may have more heart attacks, more women die as a result of them. Women have stronger immune responses  --  with increased resistance to many infections -- but are much more likely than men to develop autoimmune diseases. Men are more likely to have schizophrenia and alcohol and drug addiction, whereas women have more depression, anxiety and eating disorders. 

Those are just some of the ways women's health differs from men's, according to Miriam E. Nelson and Jennifer Ackerman, authors of "The Strong Women's Guide to Total Health."

"Our gender affects everything from the makeup of our bones and the architecture of our joints, to our skin's response to sunlight and aging, to how we experience pain, react to drugs, and cope with stress," they write.

Until fairly recently, medical researchers considered men's bodies the prototype for both genders. But today women are more than half of participants in health studies, and researchers are looking closely at illnesses affecting mostly them, Nelson and Ackerman write. 

In fact, there is so much health information available to women -- much of it contradictory -- that it can get confusing.

That's where "Strong Women's Guide" comes in. The book aims to summarize the latest thinking on women's health and offer "basic, reliable guidelines for staying well in body, mind and spirit."

And it appears to do so remarkably well considering the range of topics it covers, including reproductive and sexual health; skin, teeth, hair and nails; body weight and metabolism; muscles, bones and joints; the heart and lungs; cancer and disease; vision and hearing; and mental health.

Nelson -- the director of the John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity Prevention and an associate professor of nutrition at Tufts University -- has gained a following with earlier "Strong Women" books on topics such as weight control and bone health. Ackerman is a science and health writer and the author of several other books, including "Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream."

Their new book is not the place you would go for in-depth coverage of a specific health topic, but it offers solid overviews, useful advice and quite a bit of up-to-date detail. 

The section on birth control, for example, looks at the varied oral contraceptives available today, including a spearmint-flavored chewable pill, the three-month combination pill, the mini-pill, the "no more period" pill and other hormonal options such as a skin patch and injections. The chapter on menopause sorts through recent research findings on hormone therapy and summarizes the options for easing symptoms. A discussion of heart disease details the symptoms unique to women and tells what to look for in cholesterol, triglyceride and blood pressure screenings.

The writing is intelligent, accessible and sometimes personal; amid the matter-of-fact health discussions are anecdotes such as one in the sexuality chapter that describes a nervous first-time trip to a sex-toy boutique. A chapter on changing habits includes a story about how a colleague once chastised Nelson for not practicing what she preached about exercise -- a comment that prompted her to start running regularly to train for the Boston Marathon.

"Strong Women's Guide" is as much a how-to health book as it is a medical reference work. It starts with a health self-assessment section that looks at everything from body mass index to joy quotient. Sprinkled throughout the book are checklists of ways to protect or improve health. The book ends with chapters on managing stress and sleeping well, eating and exercising right and getting the proper screenings, tests and vaccines at every age.

-- Anne Colby

Photo: "The Strong Women's Guide to Total Health," Miriam E. Nelson and Jennifer Ackerman, Rodale Books, $27.99 


Book Review: 'The 10 Things You Need to Eat'

Child bipolar diagnosis is a poor fit for many

March 20, 2010 |  6:00 am

Bipolar Over the last decade, more children with behavior and emotional troubles have received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. This is a condition in which moods swing dramatically between depression and mania. Traditionally, bipolar was diagnosed only in adults.

A fierce debate has raged in recent years over diagnosing children with bipolar illness because the symptoms vary so much in children compared with adults, and because the medications used to treat the disorder carry some serious side effects. The American Psychiatric Assn. has proposed changes to how the diagnosis is made in children for the next edition of its diagnosing guide, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM-5. An expert panel has suggested two new diagnoses to account for the symptoms seen in children: "severe mood dysregulation" and "temper dysregulation disorder with dysphoria."

There appears to be growing support for backing away from the child bipolar diagnosis. In a paper published this week in the journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, experts from the Hastings Center summarized findings from a series of workshops on the issue and concluded that it may be better to avoid giving a child a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. The authors say the label simply does not fit many children who have been given it over the last decade. Moreover, there is still too much debate and confusion over what the children's symptoms represent. For example, it's unclear what mania really looks like in children compared with a much more precise concept of mania in adults.

"Using new labels such as SMD or TDD reflects that physicians do not yet know exactly what is wrong with these children or how to treat it," Josephine Johnston, a co-author of the study, said in a news release. "Facing up to this uncertainty could lead to better treatment recommendations and more accurate long-term prognosis."

This is not to say that these children and their families don't need help, the authors state. The concept of treating troubled children and their families without pinning a firm label on the behavior is a good idea. Unfortunately, health insurers often demand such labels in order to provide coverage for care. I wonder if insurers will cover care for "severe mood dysregulation" in the same way they would for "child bipolar disorder."

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Susan Tibbles  /  For The Times

Internet browsing: Searching for happiness?

February 3, 2010 | 10:21 am

Internet People who are addictive Internet searchers should probably browse for a phone number to the nearest therapist. Though almost everyone uses the Internet to conduct business, connect with people, pay bills or find information, the people who spend hours each day aimlessly surfing the net are more likely to be depressed, according to a new study.

Psychologists at the University of Leeds in Britain evaluated the Internet use and depression levels of 1,319 people ages 16 to 51. Of this group, 18 people (1.2%) were classified as Internet-addicted. When these 18 people were compared with 18 similar people who were not Internet-addicted, the researchers saw striking differences in depression. The 18 non-addicted people were not depressed while the 18 Internet-addicted people were classified, as a group, as moderately to severely depressed.

The addicted people tended to use the Internet more for sexual gratification, gaming and chat rooms, compared with the non-addicts. The authors of the paper, published in the journal Psychopathology, concluded that these people are replacing real-life socializing with Internet surfing. 

They say, however, that it's not clear which comes first: the Internet addiction followed by depression or depression followed by Internet addiction. Regardless of the answer to that question, depression and heavy Internet use appear to be a bad mix.

Here's a link to The Center for Internet Addiction.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Greg Baker / Associated Press

Fish oil can head off first psychotic episodes

February 1, 2010 |  4:11 pm

In the lives of young people at high risk for developing serious mental illness, heading off that first psychotic episode can mean a world of difference. A new study has found that for a year after it was completed,12 weeks of dietary supplementation with Omega-3 fish oil reduced progression to full-blown psychosis in a large group of adolescents and young adults.

The study subjects were young people who did not yet meet the criteria for full-blown mental illness, but whose grip on reality had begun to come loose, prompting them to seek psychiatric care. 

At the same time, Omega-3 long-chain fatty acids--found in a range of ocean-going fish and edible sea life--improved many of the symptoms that identified these young patients as likely schizophrenics and bipolar disorder sufferers. Among the 81 young patients under observation for psychosis in an Austrian hospital, those taking fish oil supplements for two weeks showed fewer signs of disorganized or delusional thinking, more motivation, and better overall functioning than those in a comparison group, who got psychotherapy alone.

For as long as a year after their diets were supplemented by 12-weeks of fish oil capsules, patients in the intervention group continued to function better, have fewer symptoms, and were less likely to suffer a psychotic episode than those who did not get the fish oil. Roughly 5% of those on fish oil went on to develop full-blown psychosis during the study period, versus 28% of those who got psychotherapy alone.

Psychiatrists are actively debating how--and how aggressively--to treat patients with so-called "pro-dromal" signs of mental illness, or symptoms that are considered warning signs of full-blown illness to come. Studies, among them some funded by the companies that make antipsychotic medications, have found preliminary evidence that prescribing antipsychotic medication for early symptoms can head off full-blown psychosis. But, for adolescents especially, even brief use of the medications in question poses significant risks of weight gain and metabolic changes--not to mention the stigma associated with identification as a patient with a chronic mental condition.

In a measure of relative effectiveness, the present study found that fish oil supplements--which come with a wide range of unrelated health benefits (among them cardiovascular disease prevention) and no more serious side effects than "fish burps," were as effective at preventing psychotic episodes as antipsychotic medications.

-- Melissa Healy

What to do about mild depression

February 1, 2010 | 10:06 am

Depression A recent, highly publicized study suggested that people with mild cases of depression do not benefit from antidepressant medication. However, that doesn’t mean that mild depression should be ignored.

A new study, published Monday, found that mild symptoms of depression that are not treated often do not go away and, in fact, may progress into a more severe course of depression. The research was published in the journal Psychiatric Services.

Researchers at Columbia University followed 348 adults with symptoms of mild depression. They were not in treatment for the depression and had not received any treatment in the previous year. Four years later, researchers found that 62% of the study participants were currently experiencing major depression.

The question of whether to seek help for mild symptoms can be tough for a patient and doctor. But, at the least, it would seem prudent to discuss mild depression with a primary-care doctor and arrange for continued follow-up to assess whether symptoms are improving or worsening. Moreover, mild depression often benefits from such easy remedies as an increase in exercise, healthier eating, improved sleep schedules and having someone supportive to talk to.

-- Shari Roan

Photo: Kirk McCoy / Los Angeles Times 

Researchers say it's official: TGIF, baby!

January 15, 2010 |  6:00 am

People are happier and feel better on the weekends, according to new research. Now that may be obvious to you. Indeed, this is the type of study that we at Booster Shots call "one for the duh files." However, on closer examination, the study reveals some interesting observations about leisure time.

For example, everyone is happier on the weekend -- even people who love their jobs and no matter what type of profession one is in or how much one is paid. The study found that people love the freedom associated with weekends and even feel better physically. Perhaps the most surprising finding is that people say they feel more competent during the weekend than they do while at their day-to-day jobs.

Researchers based their findings on responses from 74 volunteers age 18 to 62. Participants monitored their experiences three times daily for 21 consecutive days using simple forms or pagers.

The study reinforces what is known as the "self-determination theory," which means that well-being is based on one's personal needs for autonomy, competence and social relationships. People can tap into those needs more readily on the weekend. Conversely, they may experience time pressures, work demands and unpleasant relationships while at work.

"Far from frivolous, the relatively unfettered time on weekends provides critical opportunities for bonding with others, exploring interests and relaxing -- basic psychological needs that people should be careful not to crowd out with overwork," the lead author of the study, Richard Ryan, from the University of Rochester, said in a news release. The study was published in the January issue of Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

The research reaffirms how important leisure time is to well-being. But, the authors note, it also shows that work really can be a bummer. "These results point to possibilities for improving wellness both through enhancing need satisfactions at work and providing more time for adults that is free from work," the authors wrote.

So, it's true. Down time is really up time. Enjoy your weekend. And if you're working, I'm truly sorry.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Luis Sinco  /  Los Angeles Times

This new year, resolve to be happy

January 4, 2010 |  1:53 pm

Instead of planning to lose weight, find a better job, be a better person (typical New Year’s resolutions, according to a recent Marist poll) why not use 2010 to focus on what’s really important – your own happiness?

Dropping a few pounds and getting a raise might seem like means to that end. And happiness itself might sound like a nebulous, unachievable goal. But happiness might be worth pursuing in its own right – and, according to recent research, could be a much more measurable and tangible goal than previously thought.

Want a primer on that special feeling? A three-part PBS series, "This Emotional Life," tonight will look at why we feel what we feel, through a scientific lens and through the wisdom of such celebrities as Larry David, "Seinfeld" co-creator: "I don't think it's that much of a mystery. If you don't have a job that you like, and you're not having sex, you're just not gonna be happy."

Show host Daniel Gilbert, who sat down with NPR today for an interview, said the larger point on relationships and happiness rings true. "If you're not involved in a relationship," the Harvard psychologist said, "then indeed we see that people who aren't in romantic relationships are less happy than those who are."

Perhaps happiness is contagious, too. In an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that the feeling created by absence of relationships -- loneliness -- spreads like a disease:

Results indicated that loneliness occurs in clusters, extends up to three degrees of separation, is disproportionately represented at the periphery of social networks, and spreads through a contagious process.  

Another reason to pursue happiness and avoid loneliness this year – scientists say it’s just as important on the New Year’s resolution list as quitting smoking or losing weight. As Health reporter Melissa Healy blogged last month, loneliness can be as bad for your health as smoking and obesity. 

One double-take worthy theory presented in the PBS show: That, controlling for health problems, older people are generally happier than younger people. Counterintuitive as that notion might seem, it’s been gaining strength in recent years. Health reporter Shari Roan found some logical explanations for the theory in a 2007 story:

[M]ost scientists now think that experience and the mere passage of time gradually motivate people to approach life differently. The blazing-to-freezing range of emotions experienced by the young blends into something more lukewarm by later life, numerous studies show. Older people are less likely to be caught up in their emotions and more likely to focus on the positive, ignoring the negative.

In a special to The Times, Marnell Jameson explores how scientists are starting to quantify and measure happiness -- and what their conclusions are. She starts with a quick quiz: 

True or false:

___ I would be happier if I made more money, found the perfect mate, lost 10 pounds or moved to a new house.
___ Happiness is genetic. You can't change how happy you are any more than you can change how tall you are.
___ Success brings happiness.
Answers: False, false and false. 

Want to find out why? Read Jameson's story, and check out the first part of “This Emotional Life” tonight, airing at 9 p.m. on KCET.   

-- Amina Khan


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