Air Pollution Linked to Mental Health Issues in Children: Studies

Researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Cincinnati, have underscored the link between air pollution and mental health in children in a series of three new studies.

One of the studies published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives demonstrated that short-term exposure to environmental air pollution was related to worsening of symptoms of psychiatric disorders in children one to two days later, as marked by increased use of the emergency department for psychiatric issues in Cincinnati Children’s.

The study also revealed that children living in underprivileged localities may be more prone to the effects of air pollution in comparison with other children, especially for disorders related to anxiety and sui**dality.

The above study was led by Cole Brokamp, PhD, and Patrick Ryan, PhD, researchers in the division of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at Cincinnati Children’s. According to the Dr Brokamp, “This study is the first to show an association between daily outdoor air pollution levels and increased symptoms of psychiatric disorders, like anxiety and sui**dality, in children. More research is needed to confirm these findings, but it could lead to new prevention strategies for children experiencing symptoms related to a psychiatric disorder. The fact that children living in high poverty neighborhoods experienced greater health effects of air pollution could mean that pollutant and neighborhood stressors can have synergistic effects on psychiatric symptom severity and frequency.”

Two previous studies by researchers from Cincinnati Children’s have also linked air pollution to children’s mental health. Published in the journal Environmental Research, the study led by Kelly Brunst, PhD, a researcher in the department of Environmental Health at the University of Cincinnati, and Kim Cecil, PhD, a researcher at Cincinnati Children’s, found a relation between recent high traffic related air pollution (TRAP) exposure and higher generalized anxiety. This study is believed to be the first to use neuroimaging to relate TRAP exposure, metabolic disturbances in the brain, and generalized anxiety symptoms among otherwise healthy children. Higher myoinositol concentrations in the brain—a marker of the brain’s neuroinflammatory response to TRAP was observed.

Another study, also published in Environmental Research, and led by Kimberly Yolton, PhD, director of research in the division of General and Community Pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s, and Dr. Ryan revealed that exposure to TRAP during early life and across childhood was significantly linked with self-reported depression and anxiety symptoms in 12-year-olds. Similar findings have been reported in adults too, but research demonstrating clear connections between TRAP exposure and mental health in children has been limited.

“Collectively, these studies contribute to the growing body of evidence that exposure to air pollution during early life and childhood may contribute to depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems in adolescence,” states Dr Ryan. “More research is needed to replicate these findings and uncover underlying mechanisms for these associations.”

Reference: Cole Brokamp, Jeffrey R. Strawn, Andrew F. Beck, Patrick Ryan. Pediatric Psychiatric Emergency Department Utilization and Fine Particulate Matter: A Case-Crossover Study. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2019; 127 (9): 097006 DOI: 10.1289/ehp4815

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sad teenage girl sitting by the window

Oral Contraceptives may Increase Risk for Depressive Symptoms Among Teens

A recent study by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG) and Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands has provided new insight into whether there is any connection between oral contraceptive use and mood.

The study published in JAMA Psychiatry included a survey of young women about depressive symptoms, such as crying, sleeping excessively, and eating issues, which can be far subtler than diagnosed clinical depression. The investigators surveyed a cohort of more than 1,000 women from age 16 through 25 years, every three years, and collected a unique set of data about these sub-clinical symptoms.

The study demonstrated that there was no association between oral contraceptive use and severity of depressive symptom in the whole population that had been investigated. However, it was found that 16-year-old girls reported higher depressive symptom severity in comparison to 16-year-old girls not consuming birth-control pills.

The corresponding author of the study, Anouk de Wit, MD, PhD said, “One of the most common concerns women have when starting the pill, and teens and their parents have when an adolescent is considering taking the pill, is about immediate depressive risks.” De Wit now a trainee in the Department of Psychiatry at UMCG, further added, “Most women first take an oral contraceptive pill as a teen. Teens have lots of challenging emotional issues to deal with so it’s especially important to monitor how they are doing.”

According to co-author Hadine Joffe, MD, MSc, vice chair for Psychiatry Research for the Brigham’s Department of Psychiatry and executive director of the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology, theirs is the “first study of this scale to dive deep into the more subtle mood symptoms that occur much more commonly than a depression episode but impact quality of life and are worrying to girls, women and their families.”

For this study, the researchers analyzed data from Tracking Adolescents’ Individual Lives Survey (TRAILS), a longitudinal study of teens and young adults from the Netherlands. Each female participant filled out a survey with questions about depressive symptoms, such as crying, suicidal ideation, self-harm, eating, sleeping, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, energy, sadness, and lack of pleasure. A depressive symptom severity score was generated based on the responses of those participants.

It was found that the association between oral contraceptive use and depressive symptoms may be bidirectional: birth-control pill intake may contribute to severity of symptoms, more severe symptoms may prompt teens to begin taking oral contraceptives, or both. Observational studies, such as this one, cannot however confirm the direction of causality.

depiction of human brain

Memories: How Do They Form and Fade?

Have you ever wondered why some of your childhood memories are still fresh in your mind even after decades, while some recent ones fade in minutes? Researchers have recently discovered the neural processes that cause some memories to fade quickly while making other memories stable over time.

Using mouse models, researchers from California Institute of Technology have determined that strong, stable memories are encoded by “teams” of neurons all working in synchrony, providing redundancy that enables these memories to stay over time. The study helps in understanding how brain damage due to strokes or Alzheimer’s disease may affect memory.

Published in the journal, Science, the study was conducted at Biology research professor, Carlos Lois’s laboratory. The professor is also an affiliated faculty member of the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech.

The team, led by Walter Gonzalez, a postdoctoral scholar developed a test to examine mice’s neural activity as they learn about and remember a new place. In the test, mice explored a 5-feet-long enclosure where unique symbols denoted different locations along its white walls. A treat (sugar water) for mice was place at both ends of the track. The activity of specific neurons in the mouse hippocampus (the region of the brain where new memories are formed) known to encode for places, was measured while the mouse walked around.

The researcher noted that when a mouse was first put in the track, it was not certain about what to do and so moved left and right until it came across the treat. In these cases, when a mouse took notice of a wall symbol, single neurons were activated. But over several experiences with the track, the mouse became familiar with it and remembered the site of the treat. As it became more familiar, more and more neurons were synchronously activated by seeing each symbol on the wall. Basically, the mouse was recognizing its own location with respect to each unique symbol.

In order to investigate how memories fade over time, the researchers then withheld mice from the enclosure for up to 20 days. Upon coming back to the track after the sabbatical, mice that had formed strong memories encoded by higher numbers of neurons remembered the task promptly. The mouse’s memory of the track was clearly identifiable when analyzing the activity of large groups of neurons, in spite of some neurons showing different activity. Alternatively, using groups of neurons enables the brain to recall memories while having redundancy, even if some of the original neurons fall silent or are damaged.

Gonzalez clarifies, “Imagine you have a long and complicated story to tell. In order to preserve the story, you could tell it to five of your friends and then occasionally get together with all of them to re-tell the story and help each other fill in any gaps that an individual had forgotten. Additionally, each time you re-tell the story, you could bring new friends to learn and therefore help preserve it and strengthen the memory. In an analogous way, your own neurons help each other out to encode memories that will persist over time.”

While earlier theories about memory storage suggest that making a memory more stable requires the strengthening of the connections to an individual neuron, this study proposes that increasing the number of neurons encoding the same memory enables the memory to stay for longer. The study has great implications for designing future treatment that could boost the recruitment of a higher number of neurons to encode a memory, and could help prevent memory loss.

man working on laptop in dark

Study Indicates Why Worry Influences Concentration on Everyday Tasks

A recent research has demonstrated that worry affects regions of the brain that are crucial  for concentration. The study was conducted by researchers from the Department of Psychology in the University of Roehampton, London. Professor Paul Allen and his colleagues from the Department have examined how worry influences ‘attentional control’ or the brain areas that are involved in concentration.

The study involved the assessment of the participants for determining how often and how intensely they face worrying thoughts. They participants were made to undergo a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scan while carrying out a task requiring different levels of attentional control. The scan results indicated that, whilst all participants were able to effectively complete the task, higher levels of worry were associated with greater activity and reduced connectivity in the attentional control regions of the brain. This was evident particularly in the frontal cortex. This shows that worry impair attentional control particularly when task demands are high.

Professor Allen said “Everyone worries about things from time to time—some people more than others. Psychologists have known for some time that worry can affect our concentration, especially when we need to focus on difficult tasks. This finding suggests that worry can lead to less efficient use of neural resources and may explain why worry affects our ability to concentrate on everyday tasks.”

The study has significant implications for the understanding of how the brain and its ability to function normally are affected by emotions like worry and anxiety.

Also read:
Five Ways to Boost Your Concentration

Adele smiling

Celebrity Fat Shaming Adversely Affects All Women, Study

Celebrities, particularly female celebrities, are customarily criticized about their appearance in magazines and newspapers. While we generally don’t give much importance to those nasty headlines assuming they are trivial, little do we realize that the effects of such comments can extend well beyond the targeted person and ripple through the population at large.

A recent research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, a journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, has shown that fat shaming celebrities may negatively impact all women’s body image or their attitude about their body.

Psychologists from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada used data collected from more than 93,000 women, predominantly from North America, between 2004 to 2015 and compared 20 instances of celebrity fat shaming with women’s implicit attitudes about weight two weeks before and two weeks after each celebrity fat-shaming event. The investigators found that there was an association between instances of celebrity fat shaming and an increase in women’s implicit negative weight-related attitudes. The fat-shaming events led to a spike in women’s implicit anti-fat attitudes, with more “notorious” events producing greater spikes. Besides, the researchers also found that implicit weight-bias was on the rise more generally.

“Fat shaming is socially acceptable and it’s so common we don’t know how pervasive it is. No one even bats an eyelash at it or thinks about how terrible it is for that person. But the consequences affect more than just the target of fat shaming,” said Amanda Ravary, a Ph.D. student at McGill University and the lead author of the study.

Jennifer Bartz, the study’s senior author and an associate professor of psychology at McGill University explained, “When you look at a headline and think, ‘This is terrible,’ that is your explicit attitude. Implicit attitude is whether you think something is good or bad.”

Explicit attitudes are those, which people consciously endorse and which are often susceptible to concerns about social desirability and presenting oneself in the most positive light. By contrast, implicit attitudes, around which this investigation also revolved, indicate people’s split-second gut-level reactions that something is inherently good or bad. Implicit attitudes are generally believed to be developed over a lifetime. “We constantly receive messages that things are good or bad, and the more we hear them, the stronger the association is,” Bartz explained. “These cultural messages appeared to augment women’s gut-level feeling that ‘thin’ is good and ‘fat’ is bad. These media messages can leave a private trace in people’s minds,” she added.

The next step in this research will be to include lab research, which would enable the researchers to manipulate exposure to fat-shaming messages (vs. neutral messages) and gauge the effect of these messages on women’s implicit anti-fat attitudes. The lab research is likely to provide more direct proof of the causal role of these cultural cues in women’s implicit attitudes.

Also read
Choose Wisely: People Around You Affect Your Body Image
8 Ways to Build a Positive and Healthy Body Image

mother taking away tablet from the child

Is Digital-Addiction a Real Menace to Children?

More and more children these days are battling digital addiction. They are being exposed to electronic devices at much younger ages, and we often watch them spending hours gazing at cell-phone/tablet or computer screens. According to experts, digital addiction is as potent as meth and can have alarming effects on children. It is extremely important to apply moderation, when it comes to screens or screen-time and we as parents must teach our children how to use them in a healthy way.

According to Dr Dimitri A. Christakis, Director, Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development, Seattle Children’s Research Institute and professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, children use the devices along a continuum which ranges from healthy to compulsive to addictive. “I think the phenomenon of tech addiction is quite real,” he said.

In the commentary published in JAMA, Dr Christakis suggested that the relationship between media exposure and health in adolescents might turn out to follow an “inverted U” pattern. Thus, very high exposure and very low exposure might both be associated with poorer mental health outcomes than moderate amounts of usage.

However, though technology-use is as powerful as drugs, it is not analogous to drug use at all because these devices serve important purposes in our lives, including children’s. We as well as children need technology to do the day-to-day chores and stay connected but it is pertinent, given its adverse effects, to find healthy ways to use it adequately before its takes over.

Dr Ellen Selkie, an assistant professor of adolescent medicine at the University of Michigan, who does research on adolescents’ use of social media, said, “It’s like food, it’s something we all need because of the way businesses run, because of the job market—and for teens it’s the way they socialize.”

According to Dr Selkie, there is evidence that supports limitations on the absolute amount of screen time with younger children but the situation is more complicated, with older children. This is because, it is not that simple to make out whether a teen who is always on the phone, is there due to addiction or because that is where his friends are. It is normal for a teen to always want to be talking to his or her friends rather than the family.

However, just like other aspects of life that contribute to our overall well-being, it requires daily decisions on the user’s part to keep his or her technology-usage within healthy limits. Saying that one should altogether bring it down to zero is neither sensible nor acceptable given the benefits technology provides; however, we can certainly curb before we become its slaves instead of masters.

Dr Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of developmental behavioral pediatrics at the University of Michigan and an expert on technology use by children, equates technology to “an environment.” It is a place where all sorts of activities take place, from work to entertainment to social life. However, she cautions that it is a deliberately designed and engineered environment, with an ultimate goal of making money. “Modern technologies is purposefully habit-forming and programmed with the sort of variable rewards that keep humans engaged.” she adds. It is important to not fall prey to it because it can potentially impact our healthiness in a negative way.

Dr Radesky also emphasizes that rather than the concerned individual, or the so-called addict, the problem lies with the digital environment which is shaping the individual’s behavior, often through methods that are intentionally exploitative or subconscious.

Therefore, it is essential for children to understand the way technology works for or against them. Parents can play a significant role in imparting and demystifying information and making their children more digitally literate.

While researchers often talk about the difficulty they experience in trying to understand and quantify children’s use of devices, Dr Christakis in his commentary, points out how while the required information is routinely—and efficiently—gathered by the industry and applied to increase the charm of the devices and the programs, people in academia and research are struggling to get the data needed to put together coherent and extensive guidelines for parents and policymakers. Dr Christakis, thus, suggests that an increased cooperation between industry and researchers might help in setting up those guidelines.

According to Dr Selkie, there are ways for tech companies and even game designers to be more thoughtful about children and to discourage problematic internet use.

In the meanwhile, parents should do their part and start with asking their children to put down their cell-phones while dinner or on family outings and gradually proceed to setting limits on per day screen-time. Parents themselves should also be mindful of their own use of devices and set good examples for their children.

Also read:
8 Ways to Prevent and Address Your Child’s Addiction to Smart Devices
The 4 Personal Traits That Make It Hard to Take Criticism
Study Explains Why People Lie
Why Children Lie and What Parents Can Do to Prevent It

a man taking a peldge while lying

Study Explains Why People Lie

We all were probably taught to never lie but there would be rarely anyone who can truthfully claim that he or she doesn’t lie or hasn’t lied in life, ever. Depending upon the demands of the situation, we might tell a lie for harmless reasons like to avoid awkward situations, protect others, or avoid hurting others’ feelings, or, for some other reasons that are much serious and can potentially wreak havoc on our lives. However, there are some people who lie out of habit. And, the more they lie, the easier and more frequent this behaviour becomes. Scientists have now discovered why liars lie.

Psychologists believe that children start lying at the age of two. Since lying involves paying attention to the environment, complex planning, and the ability to manipulate a situation, it is actually considered a crucial milestone in children’s development. While growing up, they keep on learning how to use this skill for their own benefit, and by the time they reach adulthood, their lies become much more clever, harder to catch, and easier to get away with.

Cognitive neuroscientist Joshua Greene from Harvard University investigated the physical process of lying during an experiment. Participants were given the opportunity to win money by lying. While some of them still stuck to being honest and told the truth, others resorted to deception. The MRI of the participants was performed to examine their brain activity during the study. The MRI reports revealed that there was an increased activity in the frontal parietal control network of the group of liars because deciding between honesty and lying requires hard and intricate thinking. Since the neural reward centers of the participants who won money by telling lies were more active, it can be assumed that lying may be a result of the inability to resist temptation.

However, there is still no scientific explanation as to why people tend to avoid lying and whether it is a result of conflict in their brains or an understanding of morality and self-control, or simply following the social norm. According to Dan Ariely, a behavioral psychologist at Duke, “We are our own judge about our own honesty. And that internal judge is what differentiates psychopaths and non-psychopaths.”

Apparently, despite that the urge to lie comes from within, external factors can influence the frequency too. Research has shown that people tend to be dishonest when they are suffering from stress or lack of sleep, or when they see others lying. “We as a society need to understand that when we don’t punish lying, we increase the probability it will happen again,” Ariely added.

Ariely and his colleagues conducted a study to show the change in participants’ brain while they are being dishonest. The study revealed that there was an increased activity in their amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for producing fear, anxiety and emotions. This change made lying or being dishonest easier for those participants. The signals from the amygdala reduced when they expected no consequences for being dishonest, such as when playing a game. Cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, Tali Sharot, who led the research said, “If you give people multiple opportunities to lie for their own benefit, they start with little lies and get bigger and bigger over time.”

three women laughing

Choose Wisely: People Around You Affect Your Body Image

Hanging out with people who are not consumed by their appearance is beneficial to your body image and can improve your eating habits, a new study by the researchers from the University of Waterloo revealed. The study appeared in Body Image, An International Journal of Research.

The researchers examined how body image is influenced by social interactions. In consonance with the previous findings that being around people preoccupied with their bodies was detrimental, the researchers also found that spending time with people who are non-body focused had a positive effect on the body image.

“Our research suggests that social context has a meaningful impact on how we feel about our bodies in general and on a given day,” said Kathryn Miller, PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Waterloo. “Specifically, when others around us are not focused on their body it can be helpful to our own body image,” she added.

Allison Kelly, a psychology professor in clinical psychology at Waterloo and former Waterloo undergraduate Elizabeth Stephen had also joined Miller in this study.

In the study, researchers asked 92 female undergraduate students aged 17 to 25 to complete a daily diary over seven consecutive days and reflected on their interactions with body focused and non-body focused people.

The researchers assessed the frequency of participant’s daily interactions with body focused and non-body focused individuals, their degree of body appreciation, i.e., how much one values their body irrespective of its size or shape, and body satisfaction, and whether they ate intuitively in accordance with their hunger and cravings rather than fixating on their dietary and weight goals.

According to Kelly, “Body dissatisfaction is ubiquitous and can take a huge toll on our mood, self-esteem, relationships, and even the activities we pursue.” She further added, “It’s important to realize that the people we spend time with actually influence our body image. If we are able to spend more time with people who are not preoccupied with their bodies, we can actually feel much better about our own bodies.”

The findings also revealed that spending more time with non-body focused people may help in preventing disordered eating and promoting more intuitive eating.

Miller contends, “If more women try to focus less on their weight or shape, there may be a ripple effect shifting societal norms for women’s body image in a positive direction. It is also important for women to know that they have an opportunity to positively impact those around them through how they relate to their own bodies.”

Also read 8 Ways to Build a Positive and Healthy Body Image

a woman undergoing ct scan in front of a doctor

Peer Pressure Influences CT Scan Use for Dizziness/Vertigo Patients

It is usually believed that peer pressure ends when a person becomes an adult. But this is, unfortunately, not the case. Adults are just as much subject to peer pressure as children and youth. Peer pressure is when a person or group of people attempts to cause another person to conform to some type of uniform code. Peer pressure among adults can happen anywhere, even at workplace and in general work practices.

A new study published in the journal Medicine has shown that peer pressure among emergency physicians (EPs) plays an important role in the use of computed tomography (CT) imaging, also known as CT scan, for dizziness or vertigo patients. A team comprising researchers from Kaohsiung Chang Gung Memorial Hospital, Niao-Sung, Taiwan and Chang Gung University College of Medicine, Taoyuan City, Taiwan evaluated the effect of peer pressure on decision making in EPs to use CT scan for patients with dizziness/vertigo.

Dizziness is a common complaint in the emergency department (ED), accounting for 2.5% of all ED visits in the United States. While the most common causes of dizziness/vertigo are benign, a potentially serious underlying disease, such as cerebellar or brain stem stroke, may go unnoticed. Due to the uncertainty and cost of a misdiagnosis, EPs may reduce the testing threshold for brain imaging in handling these low-probability, high-morbidity situations. But unnecessary head CT examination may lead to prolonged ED stay, increased medical costs, and exposure to radiation (a potential carcinogen).

The use of CT imaging to examine patients presenting with dizziness has increased exceedingly, from 9.4% to 37.4% in the United States between 1995 and 2009. A previous study had showed that EPs vary in their respective decisions to either admit or discharge general ED patients. Senior EPs were found to have lower discharge rates compared with their junior colleagues.

The purpose of this study was, therefore, to evaluate the peer-pressure effect on the decisions of CT use for dizziness/vertigo patients by EPs with varying seniority. The EPs were categorized into 3 groups according to seniority. Group “>V12” consisted of 10 senior physicians with more than 12 years of work experience. Group “V7-V12” consisted of 9 physicians with 7 to 12 years of work experience (intermediate seniority). Group “<V7” consisted of 10 junior physicians with <7 years of work experience.

The study intervention used a behavior modifying measure by creating a “team norm” that imposed an unspoken peer pressure effect by announcing the CT-use rate of each EP by monthly e-mail reminders. Norms are the rules that the team agrees to follow and designate a standard for average performance by the whole team. Once developed, team norms are used to guide and shape team members’ behavior.

The authors explained, “To evaluate the effectiveness of peer pressure on changing EP decisions concerning CT use for dizziness/vertigo patients, we created a ‘team norm’ imposed peer-pressure effect by announcing the CT use rate of each EP through monthly e-mail reminders. We also conducted a before-and-after retrospective case review of patients who visited the ED.”

The study was conducted in a tertiary academic medical center in Southern Taiwan with over 2500 acute beds and an average of 72,000 adult ED visits per year. The medical records of nontraumatic patients who were older than 17 years of age and visited the ED with a principal diagnosis of dizziness and vertigo were extracted from the ED administrative database using the International Classifications of Diseases Tenth Revision coding system.

“Our study group consisted of 3165 patients; 1657 were enrolled in pre-intervention group while 1508 were enrolled in post-intervention group. Patients were assessed by the 29 EPs in the department,” the authors said.

The intervention strategy presented herein applied peer pressure through e-mail reminders. The findings of the study revealed a decrease in CT use for patients with isolated dizziness/vertigo, particularly among junior EPs and in younger patients. Although the study has a few limitations pertaining to the generalizability of its conclusions to other ED settings, the method used in this study offers a promising option that can effectively decrease CT use and unnecessary medical costs in ED.

Also read 10 Techniques to Help Your Child Resist Peer Pressure

Living Alone May Increase Mental Health Risk, Study

A new study has revealed that living alone is linked to common mental disorders (CMDs) such as mood disorders, anxiety, and substance use disorders. As per some studies, almost one-third of people will experience a CMD in their lifetime. As CMDs impact not just the individual but the society as well due to their high prevalence, scientists want to comprehend all the risk factors for mental illness.

Over the past few years, researchers have been exploring whether living alone might be one such risk factor. A new study published in the journal PLOS One concludes that there is a link between living alone and CMDs. The findings also reveal that it affects all age groups and genders, and that loneliness is the predominant driver. The authors of the new study aimed to fill in the gaps in the previous studies sought links between living alone and CMDs in general, rather than focusing on just one mental condition like depression, etc. and they examined which factors seemed to be influencing the relationship.

For the study, the scientists from the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines in France analyzed data comprising 20,503 adults, ages 16 – 74, living in England. The three National Psychiatric Morbidity Surveys conducted in 1993, 2000, and 2007 provided the data on a range of variables, including height and weight, level of education, employment status, alcohol and drug use, social support, and feelings of loneliness, for the study. The study participants were asked to complete Clinical Interview Schedule-Revised questionnaires, to assess if they had experienced any neurotic symptoms during the previous week.

Not only did the authors find the number of people living alone having steadily grown with 8.8% in1993, 9.8% in 2000, and 10.7% in 2007, their analysis also demonstrated that across all age groups and genders, there was a substantial correlation between living alone and having a CMD. The size of this relationship was fairly alike across all three surveys. CMDs were more common in those living alone than those not living alone—in 1993 it was 19.9% in those living alone vs. 13.6% in those not living alone; in 2000, 23.2% vs. 15.5%; and in 2007, 24.7% vs. 15.4%.

When the scientists probed deeper into the association between CMDs and living alone, they found that loneliness explained 84% of it. As mental health problems are a growing concern, the understanding of the risk factors associated with CMDs might help reverse the trend. Unlike those who live alone but don’t feel lonely, the ones who do, may seek interventions such as talking therapies, social care provisions, and animal-based interventions, to deal with loneliness.

The authors acknowledge that the study has certain limitations. For instance, it was a cross-sectional study, that is, it looked at a glimpse of people at one point in time. Therefore, longitudinal studies are required to establish how this relationship might play out over time. Further, the study could not assess the cause-and-effect relation between the two variables.

Therefore, it was not possible to find out through this study whether a person developed a CMD ‘because’ he or she lived alone, or whether he or she developed a CMD and ‘then’ decided to live alone. Also, probably, an individual with a predisposition for CMDs is more likely to want living alone. Apparently, more studies need to be conducted to fill in these gaps.

While earlier studies showed loneliness to be linked with depression and anxiety and therefore, back up the results of this study, the new findings go a few steps further in showing that the relationship between mental health and living alone is stable across time, that the link is not restricted to older adults, and that loneliness plays a key role.

 

two girl bullying a fat child

Bullying Increases Likelihood of Adult Obesity, Study

It is well known that adolescent bullying can have enduring effects on a child’s psyche but a new study published in the journal Pediatric Obesity reveals that bullying can negatively impact children’s health in the long run too. Researchers from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU), along with the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health (NICHD), wanted to determine how weight-based teasing might affect body mass index (BMI) and fat mass in children over time.

The study was conducted by Dr Jack Yanovski of NICHD and his colleagues upon 110 adolescent participants comprising 55 per cent females and 45 per cent males. The study continued for up to 15 years, between July 1996 and July 2009. The participants were asked to check-in with the researchers annually. The average age of the volunteers upon enrolment in the study, was about 12 years and they were already either overweight or obese, or were considered being at high risk for adult obesity for having overweight parents.

Initially, volunteers completed a survey which asked them to report how often they experience weight-based teasing, with “1” for “never” and “5” for “often.” Their height, weight, body fat mass, and BMI were also noted, and updated each year along with a fresh questionnaire. Even after adjusting for baseline BMI and fat mass, researchers found that participants who reported being teased the most gained 33 per cent more weight and 91 per cent more fat mass per year than those who avoided jeering.

Dr Natasha Schvey, the study’s first author and psychology professor at USU opines, “What’s important about these findings is that they suggest that weight-based teasing puts children at risk for excess weight- and fat-gain over the course of their development,” It is, therefore, important to educate people that not only does teasing discourage healthy behaviors, it rather seems to do just the opposite, i.e., motivates unhealthy behaviors among those jeered at, she added.

Although researchers are not able to confirm a particular reason for the association, they believe it could be a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. A child who is mocked at for their weight may experience more self-esteem issues, which could encourage unhealthy coping behaviors such as binge eating. “Based on these findings, a possible next step would be to develop clinical pediatric interventions that could help reduce the harmful effects of weight-based teasing,” said Schvey

Researchers Explain Neurophysiological Link Between Breathing and Attention

Meditation and ancient breath-focused practices, such as pranayama, have long been known to improve our ability to concentrate. A recent study by researchers at Trinity College Dublin and the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity, explains for the first time the neurophysiological link between breathing and attention.

Breath-focused meditation and yogic breathing practices have several known cognitive benefits, such as increased ability to focus, improved arousal levels, more positive emotions, decreased mind wandering and emotional reactivity, along with many others. However, no direct neurophysiological link between respiration and cognition has been suggested till date.

The study has been published in a paper entitled “Coupling of respiration and attention via the locus coeruleus: Effects of meditation and pranayama” in the journal Psychophysiology. The research findings has revealed for the first time that breathing which is a key component of meditation and mindfulness practices directly influences the levels of a natural chemical messenger called noradrenaline in the brain.

Noradrenaline is released when we are challenged, curious, worked up, focused or emotionally aroused. If it is produced at optimum levels, it helps the brain grow new connections. In other words, the way we breathe, directly impacts the chemistry of our brains in a way that can enhance our attention and improve our brain health.

The study findings revealed that participants who focused well while undertaking a task that demanded a lot of attention had greater synchronization between their breathing patterns and their attention, than those who had poor focus. The authors of the study believe that it may be possible to use breath-control practices to stabilize attention and boost brain health.

The lead author of the study, Michael Melnychuk, a PhD candidate at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, Trinity, explicated: “Yoga practitioners have claimed for some 2,500 years, that respiration influences the mind. In our study we looked for a neurophysiological link that could help explain these claims by measuring breathing, reaction time, and brain activity in a small area in the brainstem called the locus coeruleus, where noradrenaline is made. Noradrenaline is an all-purpose action system in the brain. When we are stressed we produce too much noradrenaline and we cannot focus. When we feel sluggish, we produce too little and again, we cannot focus. There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer.”

The study has demonstrated that as we breathe in, locus coeruleus activity increases slightly, and as we breathe out, it decreases. In simple words, this means that our attention is affected by our breath and that it rises and falls with the cycle of respiration. By concentrating on and regulating our breathing, it is possible to optimize our attention level and similarly, by focusing on our attention level, our breathing becomes more synchronized.

The research provides deeper scientific understanding of the neurophysiological mechanisms which underlie ancient meditation practices. Further research could help with the development of non-pharmacological therapies for individuals with attention compromised conditions such as ADHD and traumatic brain injury and in supporting cognition in older people.

Ian Robertson, Co-Director of the Global Brain Health Institute at Trinity and Principal Investigator of the study added: “Yogis and Buddhist practitioners have long considered the breath an especially suitable object for meditation. It is believed that by observing the breath and regulating it in precise ways—a practice known as pranayama—changes in arousal, attention, and emotional control that can be of great benefit to the meditator are realized. Our research finds that there is evidence to support the view that there is a strong connection between breath-centered practices and a steadiness of mind.”

According to Robertson, these findings have noteworthy implications for research into brain aging. Brains typically lose mass as they age, but less so in the brains of long term meditators. More ‘youthful’ brains have a reduced risk of dementia and mindfulness meditation techniques actually strengthen brain networks. This research offers one possible reason for this—by regulating our breath we can control noradrenaline, which in the right amount would help the brain grow new connections between cells. This study provides one more reason for everyone to boost their brain health using a whole range of activities ranging from aerobic exercise to mindfulness meditation.

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Is Coffee Addiction an Addiction for Real?

A recent study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology provides insight into what can help kick caffeine habit. The researcher recruited 48 heavy caffeine users, consuming at least 270 mg per day of coffee, for the study to examine how knowing about dose reductions influence self-assessments of withdrawal severity, and therefore, how much of the caffeine withdrawal process was real versus imagined.

The researcher randomly assigned participants into two groups and put both the groups on the same caffeine reduction plan over a 5-day period. On the first day, participants were given one cup of coffee in the morning, and one in the afternoon with a total of 300 mg caffeine. The procedures on the second, third, fourth and fifth day was similar to the first, except that caffeine doses were gradually reduced (200 mg, 100 mg, 0 mg, and 0 mg, respectively).

However, only one of the two groups received accurate information about the caffeine reduction schedule. The other was rather (mis)informed that full 300 mg of caffeine was given to them on the first, second, and third days of the experiment and 0 mg on the fourth and fifth days.

Using the Caffeine Withdrawal Symptom Questionnaire (CWSQ), the researchers measured caffeine withdrawal symptoms every day. CWSQ is a 23-item scale that measures symptoms such as low alertness/difficulty concentrating, mood disturbances, fatigue/drowsiness, low sociability/motivation to work, flu-like feelings, nausea/upset stomach, and headache.

The respective CWSQ scores of the two groups were then compared. The researchers had predicted that caffeine withdrawal symptoms would be more in line with the information the participants received about the doses, and not the actual doses they were given. Interestingly, this was exactly what the finding revealed too.

The group that was given correct information about their dose reduction schedule exhibited caffeine withdrawal symptoms steadily increasing throughout the multi-day test period. On the other hand, the misinformed group showed flat-line CWSQ scores for the first three days and a big uptick on day four. The researchers opine, “Given that they received identical doses of caffeine, these day-to-day differences in reported withdrawal can only be explained by differences in expectancies.”

Unfortunately, however, which one of the two groups was more accurate in assessing their actual withdrawal symptoms, cannot be known for certain. It is likely that both groups were biased in reporting their symptoms. While the misinformed group responded under the influence of “placebo effect” thinking they were getting effective treatment when, in reality, none was given, the group that received correct information was likely biased by a “nocebo effect,”  manifesting the negative side-effects the treatment was known to cause.

Despite this, the study does validate that at least part of our withdrawal symptoms are based purely on our expectations. This insight can help one picture a better outcome when he or she attempts to quit or reduce his or her coffee intake next time. It also suggests that tricking oneself into thinking one is getting caffeine when the dose is actually decreasing, or conversely, thinking that one is decreasing the dose while receiving caffeine, might be a great way to give up one’s coffee habit.

Link Found between Forcing a Smile for Customers and More Drinking after Work

According to researchers at Penn State and the University at Buffalo, employees who force themselves to smile and or who try to appear happy before customers despite being annoyed—may be at risk for heavier drinking post work.

The research team studied the drinking habits of people, who are in public dealing jobs such as nurses or teachers who work with patients or students respectively, or those in food service working with customers. They found that regularly faking or amplifying positive emotions, like smiling, or suppressing negative emotions while resisting the urge to, for instance, roll one’s eyes, was linked with heavier drinking after work.

Alicia Grandey, professor of psychology at Penn State, asserted that the findings indicate that employers may want to reconsider “service with a smile” policies.

According to Grandey, faking and suppressing emotions in front of customers make employees reach for a drink and it is something beyond the stress of the job or feeling negative. “The more they have to control negative emotions at work, the less they are able to control their alcohol intake after work,” she said.

While earlier research has shown a link between service workers and problems with drinking, why this actually happens could not be known. Grandey hypothesized that employees may be using a lot of self-control to fake or suppress emotions in front of customers and therefore, later, those employees may not have too much self-control left to regulate how much alcohol they drink.

“Although smiling as part of one’s job sounds like a positive thing, doing it all day can be exhausting. As usually money is tied to showing positive emotions and curbing negative ones in these jobs, money motivates the individuals to disregard their natural tendencies, but doing it all day can be draining.”

The study published in Journal of Occupational Health Psychology included data from phone interviews with 1,592 U.S. workers. The data was, in turn, part of a larger survey funded by the National Survey of Work Stress and Health, which included almost 3,000 participants representing U.S. working population.

The information included in the data was about how often the participants faked or suppressed emotions, also called “surface acting,” as well as how often and how much the participants drank after work. The researchers also measured how impulsive the participants are and how much freedom they feel they have at work.

The researchers found that overall, employees who interacted with the public drank more after work as compared to those who did not. Besides, surface acting was also related to drinking after work, and that connection was stronger or weaker depending on the person’s trait-like self-control and the job’s extent of self-control.

“The link between surface acting and drinking after work was clearer for participants who were impulsive or who lacked self-control over behavior at work,” Grandey said. “If an individual is impulsive or constantly told how to do his or her job, it may be harder for him or her to control emotions all day, and when that individual reaches home, he or she doesn’t have that self-control to stop after one drink.”

Specifically, the findings demonstrated a stronger relation between surface acting and drinking when employees who were highly impulsive also worked in jobs where employees have one-time service encounters with customers, like a call center or coffee shop, rather than relationships, like health care or education. “People in these jobs tend to be younger and in entry-level positions, and may lack the self-control tendencies and the monetary and social rewards that can buffer the costs of surface acting,” Grandney pointed out. Further, the results suggest that surface acting is less likely to create trouble when the work is personally rewarding to the employee.

“Nurses, for instance, may intensify or fake their emotions for clear reasons,” Grandey said. “They’re trying to comfort a patient or build a strong relationship. But someone who is faking emotions for a customer they may never see again, that may not be as rewarding, and may eventually be more exhausting or taxing.”

Grandey said that these insights may be useful for employers to create healthier workplace environments. “Employers may want to consider allowing employees to have a little more autonomy or independence at work. And when the emotional effort is clearly connected with financial or relational rewards, the effects aren’t so bad.”

 

PTSD: Brain Biomarkers May Explain Variance in Symptom Severity

Researchers at Yale University and the Icahn School of Medicine have identified biomarkers, using sophisticated computational tools, which may explain why some people have more severe posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms than others.

The findings published in Nature Neuroscience may help evaluate who would be at greater risk of PTSD symptoms.

The study of combat veterans who had been exposed to extreme incidents, demonstrated that those veterans who had severe PTSD symptoms had distinct patterns of neurological and physiological responses affecting associative learning—the ability to discern harmful stimuli from safe ones in the environment.

Ilan Harpaz-Rotem, associate professor of psychiatry at Yale and co-corresponding author of the paper said, “We are shedding new light on how people learn fear and unlearn it.”

The researchers wanted to unravel why some people suffer greatly when experience a traumatic event while others exhibit few or limited side effects.

Retired soldiers who had undergone intense circumstances during combat deployment were examined for physiological responses while being presented with pictures of two different faces. In classic fear-conditioning tests, the subjects were given slight electric shocks after viewing one of the faces, but not the other. Later, the faces that were combined with shock were switched in an attempt to have the subjects “unlearn” original fear conditioning and test their ability to learn that something new in the environment is hazardous.

The findings deduced using computational modeling revealed that in people with severe PTSD symptoms, the amygdala and striatum were less able to track changes in threat level, which may serve as biomarkers for PTSD symptom severity.

According to Harpaz-Rotem, “There were pronounced variances in the ‘learning rates’ of those with severe symptoms and those without symptoms.” Highly symptomatic individuals tended to overreact to a mismatch between their expectations and what they actually experienced. In a war zone, a garbage can might contain an explosive device, he explained, but those with severe PTSD symptoms have a harder time unlearning the fear in civilian life in comparison to those with less severe symptoms.

The study’s co-author and associate professor of comparative medicine and neuroscience at Yale, Ifat Levy said, “The study has offered novel understanding of the neurobiology of PTSD and a better understanding of learning processes among people with this disorder which might pave the way for refining potential PTSD treatment in future.

PTSD is a common anxiety disorder that develops after exposure to a harrowing event or ordeal. It can occur at any age between childhood and adulthood. Those suffering from PTSD may experience startling thoughts and memories of the event. Sleeplessness, depression, or other anxiety disorders frequently co-occur with PTSD.

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doi:10.1038/s41593-018-0315-x