Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Do Funny People Live Longer?

By Denise Foley for Completely You

The Guinness Book of World Records gave Phyllis Diller the nod for most laughs per minute (12) -- twice as many as funnyman Bob Hope, her hero. It might have been Diller’s machinegun delivery of one-liners like these that gave her the edge:
  • “I once wore a peek-a-boo blouse. People would peek, and then they’d boo.”
  •  “They say that housework can't kill you, but why take a chance?”
  • “Photos of me don't do me justice. They just look like me.”
  • “I never made ‘Who’s Who,’ but I’m featured in ‘What’s That?’”
  • “My cooking is so bad that my kids thought Thanksgiving was in memory of Pearl Harbor.”
And the withering string of self-deprecating jibes was always followed by her signature cackle -- which made her sound like a demonic crow. She delivered the rapid-fire lines wearing a spangled minidress with hair that looked like it had been styled with a hand mixer. Listen to that laugh here.

Diller, who died on August 20 at the age of 95 (“with a smile on her face,” according to her son), set another record too: Along with her mentor, Bob Hope, and other professional funny people, she lived longer than most people do.

At a recent meeting of the American Psychological Association, former sitcom writer turned university professor Steven Pritzker reported that professional comedians live longer that other entertainers as well as people in other professions.

Pritzker, who is the director of Saybrook University’s masters of psychology with an emphasis on creativity program, looked at 73 famous comics who’d gone to the big open mic night in the sky -- their median age at death was 74. Of the top 26 comics in the group, median age at death was 77, higher than any other profession. (There were even a couple of centenarians in there such as Bob Hope and George Burns.) Architects came in second at just under 76.

Why Laughter = Longevity
Pritzker, who was once a professional funny man himself (he wrote for the Emmy-winning “Mary Tyler Moore Show”), says he doesn’t know for sure why a sense of humor translates into longevity. But he has a hypothesis: “It could allow an individual to handle stress and aging by being a tension breaker.”

His theory is in line with many studies that have linked laughter and having a sense of humor with better physical health. It’s not a stretch -- research suggests that humor and laughter do reduce the physical effects of stress, including a depressed immune system. (One recent Romanian study even found that people who had a sense of humor also took better care of their teeth -- flossing and using mouthwash every day -- than people who were more dour.)

How to Hone Your Sense of Humor
So, how do you develop a sense of humor if you weren’t born with one? The same way to get to Carnegie Hall: Practice, practice, practice. Read and listen to funny stuff; occasionally skip from the business page to the comics for some relief. Sign up for an email joke a day. Share them.

“I believe it is possible in some cases [to develop a sense of humor], because having been a comedy writer and writing teacher, I saw some people actually become funnier as they picked up the rhythms of the humor,” says Pritzker. “We find that humor does provide an advantage for aging and quality of life; the next research question will be to see if we can actually train people to develop a sharper sense of humor.”

Humor class? I can see it now -- the only classroom where getting an A isn’t as important as becoming class clown.

For more great health & lifestyle content, visit me here at Completely You
Denise Foley   is Completely You’s News You Can Use” blogger. She is a veteran health writer, the former deputy editor and editor at large of Prevention, and co-author of four books on women’s health and parenting.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Anger Management 101: Keep Your Cool This Election Season

By Denise Foley for Completely You

As we move deeper into election season, you may find yourself having a hard time keeping your cool … or just not stomping around in a rage and saying @#$&^!! a lot in conversation. You know, like Charlie Sheen (ironically, now starring in a TV show called “Anger Management”).

But now, new research has a way to help you manage your anger. Using a technique called “self-distancing,” you can act like you’re a fly on the wall of all your interactions. Rather than becoming enmeshed in every little drama, you can sit in the audience and watch. In the heat of the moment, you can just be chill.

At least, that’s the way it worked in the studies done by Dominik Mischkowski, M.Sc., a doctoral candidate at Ohio State University, and his colleagues. They deliberately raised the ire of college students whose “lab partner” -- actually one of the researchers -- berated them for not following directions. The students who applied the technique of distancing themselves from the situation and analyzing it intellectually were less aggressive and angry than those who took it to heart.

And yes, admits Mischkowski, the researchers took precautions in case “a 6-foot-tall football player with a nasty temper” decided to take a poke at them. “We always had two research assistants in the lab just in case,” he says, laughing.

How to Keep Your Distance
What people normally do in a heated situation is turn up the temperature. They focus on their angry or hurt feelings. But, says Mischkowski, “when you ruminate, you make things worse.”

By taking a step back -- essentially having what I’ve always called “an aerial view” of your life -- you can see what’s really going on without having your emotions clouding your perspective. “If what you’re thinking is, ‘This person is really annoying,’ you could become more angry,” says Mischkowski. “If you ask yourself, ‘Why do I feel this way,’ you may think, ‘Well, this person really annoys me, but it’s not really important,’ so you can reduce your negative emotions.” (Read more about the study here.)

Believe it or not, the technique is easy to learn. The college students in the study picked it up in minutes. The key thing is to be self-aware enough to practice it when the circumstances arise, says Mischhowski.

It’s just a few months until the presidential election. That should give you plenty of opportunity to practice.

For more great health & lifestyle content, visit me here at Completely You
Photo: Corbis Images
Denise Foley   is Completely You’s News You Can Use” blogger. She is a veteran health writer, the former deputy editor and editor at large of Prevention, and co-author of four books on women’s health and parenting.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What You Can Learn From Rosie O’Donnell

By Denise Foley for Completely You

By Denise Foley for Completely You

Rosie O’Donnell dodged a big one. On August 20, the often controversial comic announced on her popular blog that she’d had a heart attack and she was lucky to be alive.

She’s right.

It wasn’t just that her left anterior descending coronary artery was 99 percent blocked. (That’s the major artery of the heart nicknamed “the widowmaker” because when it goes, it takes you with it.) It was that she thought she was having a heart attack but didn’t call 911.

She had some of the classic symptoms women experience -- an ache in her chest, a clammy feeling, nausea, vomiting -- not the stereotypical Hollywood heart attack in which a man (always a man) clutches his chest then keels over. Rosie had time to Google her symptoms, suspect she might be having a heart attack … and go into denial.

In blank verse, this is how she described what happened:

“maybe this is a heart attack
i googled womens heart attack symptoms
i had many of them
but really? – i thought – naaaa”

She did take an aspirin. Good move. Aspirin is a blood thinner that can break up a clot that can travel to the heart, blocking blood flow. When blood doesn’t get to the heart muscle, neither does the oxygen it carries. Deprived of oxygen, the muscle can die.

But the American Heart Association and other heart organizations say that the first thing you should do if you think you’re having a heart attack is call emergency services. (Read more here). Rosie is far from alone in failing to heed that essential advice.

The average person waits four hours before picking up the phone, and only 50 percent of women say they’d call 911 if they thought they were having a heart attack.

This is such an important issue that the Office of Women’s Health launched a campaign aimed just at women called “Make the Call, Don’t Miss a Beat” to encourage them to know the symptoms and make the call that could save their lives.

The symptoms:
· Chest pain or discomfort
· Unusual upper body discomfort
· Shortness of breath
· Breaking out in a cold sweat
· Unusual or unexplained fatigue
· Light-headedness or sudden dizziness
· Nausea (feeling sick to the stomach)

As a heart attack survivor, Rosie O’Donnell, is at high risk of having a second. In fact, during the first six years after a heart attack, 35 percent of women have another, compared to only 18 percent of men. Next time -- and I hope there isn’t one -- she’ll know what to do first.

What should you do? If you don’t have a 911 service in your area, keep the number of your local ambulance service handy. Program it into your cell. Keep it right by your home phone.

Yes, most women are used to doing plenty on their own. But to survive a heart attack, you need to ask for help.

Denise Foley   is Completely You’s News You Can Use” blogger. She is a veteran health writer, the former deputy editor and editor at large of Prevention, and co-author of four books on women’s health and parenting.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Vaccine Against Fat?

By Denise Foley for Completely You

Imagine there was a vaccine that would allow you to eat what you want and still lose weight.

Well, if you’re a chubby rodent, there is.

In fact, there are two vaccines in the works that could change the entire frontier of obesity, though both are still in the animal testing stage.

One, developed by scientists at Scripps Institute in California, works by zapping the appetite-boosting effects of the hormone ghrelin. It doesn’t exactly help you lose weight, but it significantly curbs weight gain. Rats who got the vaccine and ate whatever they wanted only gained 0.8 grams a day vs. rats on a placebo who gained 1.6 grams a day when allowed to pig out. Add a low-cal diet to the equation and voila -- easier weight loss.

The ‘Flab Jab’
The other vaccine, developed by Braasch BioTech in South Dakota, does help you lose body fat, even if you’re a regular at the all-you-can-eat buffet. This “flab jab,” as the British tabloids dubbed it, works in an entirely different way, by suppressing a hormone that slows down metabolism. Technically speaking, it inhibits the release of growth factor (aka human growth hormone or HGH) from the pituitary gland, allowing it to build to higher levels in the body -- the way it was when we were kids and could eat anything and not gain weight.

The anti-obesity vaccine actually takes aim at fat cells, explains Keith N. Haffer, PhD, president and chief science officer of Braasch. “These cells stop making new fat (lipogenesis) and excrete fat (lipolysis),” he says. “In other words, they’re not making any more fat and burning the fat they have.” (Read the full study here.)

Too Good to Be True?
While the mice in Haffer’s study were all fat-eating obese mice, those that got the vaccine were leaner and lighter than their compatriots, even though they were eating the same number of calories. But that doesn’t mean that, if this vaccine comes to the human market, you can have your cake and lose weight too.

It will work even better if you’re on a healthy diet and exercising, says Haffer.

Haffer created the vaccine originally for the meat and milk industries. Because it naturally increases levels of HGH, it would replace the synthetic version now given to cows and pigs to increase lean meat and milk production and promote faster growth in young animals. That’s a common and now increasingly controversial practice that’s been banned in some places, including the entire European Union, because of fears that it can disrupt normal hormonal functions in humans.

That hasn’t stopped bodybuilders and Internet entrepreneurs from promoting it as a way to build muscle and stop aging. Early research found that people who were injected with synthetic HGH lost weight, fat, and built more lean muscle. And there’s some evidence that HGH can turn back the hands of time in some ways. In fact, a study published on August 6 in Archives of Neurology found that older people with mild cognitive problems had improved memory, concentration and decision-making skills when they took a drug that boosted natural HGH in the body.

Unfortunately, synthetic HGH -- the kind that bodybuilders crave and can be found all over the Internet -- can have some serious side effects in humans, including joint and muscle pain and insulin resistance, a risk factor for diabetes.

When Will It Be Available?
So far, says Haffer, after testing in 20,000 animals, he hasn’t found any appreciable side effects. And, he says, it’s not going to be sold over the Internet.

The vaccine is short-acting -- after a couple of weeks, you’re back to your old sluggish metabolism -- so it needs to be administered again. By your doctor.

“You would definitely have to be monitored,” says Haffer, who is now seeking a U.S. Food and Drug Administration license to release the vaccine for use in animals.

Both this shot and the one being developed by the Scripps Institute are still years away from being approved for human use. But, says Haffer, “we hope this vaccine is seen as a potential tool on the horizon for treating obesity. What consumers want is an anti-obesity drug. And this is an option that the big pharmaceutical companies are not looking at.”

Denise Foley   is Completely You’s News You Can Use” blogger. She is a veteran health writer, the former deputy editor and editor at large of Prevention, and co-author of four books on women’s health and parenting.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Health Hazards of Paper Receipts

By Denise Foley for Completely You

The next time a cashier asks you if you want your receipt in your hand or in the bag, opt for the bag. Better yet, if you don’t need the receipt for your records, opt out of it altogether. And pay by credit or debit card so you don’t have to handle money either.

Why the drastic measures? A new study, done in part by the New York State Department of Health, found that thermal receipts, paper currency and other paper products from the U.S. and three other countries contained high levels of bisphenol S (BPS) -- a substitute for the compound bisphenol A (BPA), which has been banned by the US Food and Drug Administration for use in baby bottles and sippy cups because it’s been linked to infertility, cancers and genetic mutations, mainly in animal studies. (Read more about BPA here.)

BPS: A Poor Substitute
Many manufacturers are switching over to BPS in such products as receipt paper to comply with restrictions and regulations around the world. But there’s still a big problem.  Researchers have discovered that like its cousin BPA, BPS is what’s called an endocrine disrupter. That means it mimics our own natural hormones, particularly estrogen, and like BPA, it’s absorbed directly through the skin.

Although BPS might be less potent than BPA, it also may be less biodegradable. While further study is needed, BPS is being introduced into the environment -- and into your hands and the recesses of your wallet -- every day.

In the current study, published in Environmental Science and Technology, all of the receipt paper, 87 percent of the paper currency and 52 percent of the recycled paper contained BPS. The study also suggests that people may be absorbing BPS in large doses through the skin. (Read more about the study here.)

So What Should You Do?
You can avoid the potential threat by asking for e-receipts and handling paper receipts and money as little as possible. Or “wash your hands soon after touching” the tainted paper, says researcher Kurunthachalam Kannan of the Wadsworth Center at the New York State Department of Health and the State University of New York at Albany.

There are other good reasons to avoid receipts. According to Market Watch in The Wall Street Journal, ATM receipts are one of the top sources of planetary litter. They estimate that if everyone in the U.S. would refuse one receipt, it would save a roll of paper more than 2 billion feet long. That would circle the equator 15 times. And that’s one paper trail we don’t want to follow.

For more great health & lifestyle content, visit me here at Completely You
Denise Foley   is Completely You’s News You Can Use” blogger. She is a veteran health writer, the former deputy editor and editor at large of Prevention, and co-author of four books on women’s health and parenting.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A New Way to Eat Less

By Denise Foley for Completely You

By Denise Foley for Completely You

Betcha can’t eat just one. Remember that Lay’s potato chip ad slogan from the ’60s?

Even if you don’t, research over the last five decades proves that it was absolutely accurate. Once you rip open the bag or pop the top of that can of potato chips, you probably can’t stop at one, let alone two, three, four, 10 … oops, did I just eat all that?

But a new study from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab -- whose researchers came up with the idea that serving food on smaller plates and bowls helps you eat less -- has found that people who find one chip dyed red, which marked either one or two servings, eat about half of what others with no “edible stop signs” consume. (Read more about it here.)

Why We Need Stop Signs
"People generally eat what is put in front of them," explains Brian Wansink, who holds a doctorate in marketing, is the director of the lab and wrote the best-selling Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. Unless, that is, they see something -- a visual cue -- that tells them to stop. Like a red potato chip.

Wansink says that he and his colleagues settled on painting chips after discarding other ideas, like putting a little paper sleeve between the chips that would tell people how many calories they’d just eaten. “We were afraid people would think, ‘Is this edible?’ and try eating the paper,” he said -- joking, I think.

Some snack food manufacturers already have warmed to the idea of calorie-controlled packaging, producing 100-calorie snack packs of everything from cookies to chips. Trader Joe’s even sells almonds in individual packages containing exactly 22 nuts, the recommended serving.

Wansink thinks it’s a good idea. After all, he experimented with it back in the ’90s, then told food producers, “Hey, when you shrink the size of a portion down to 125 calories, people ate a whole lot less and were willing to pay a whole lot more.” In fact, he found that people were willing to shell out about 20 percent more for pre-portioned packaging. “It was a win-win,” says Wansink.

He got some pushback from manufacturers who thought they made more money when people ate more. But Wansink, who’s made a career of studying what makes people eat, told them what really happens: “You have people who eat your chips or cookies, then say, ‘That tasted really good, but I ate too much. I’m not going to do that again for a long time.’ ”

Taking Portion Control out of Our (Greedy) Hands
Today, he says, food producers are more likely to see the logic. In fact, several major ones are considering inserting such obvious “stop signs” into product packages.

As for consumers, about 70 percent of us respond to visual cues to stop eating. The other 30 percent “eat about the same amount, maybe even more,” says Wansink.

But he’s still a big proponent of calorie-controlled packaging. “The average snack is about 180 calories,” he points out. “If you eat one of those packs, you’re eating 80 fewer calories than you normally would. Even if you eat two, you’re only eating a little more, and it’s a whole lot less than if you picked up a candy bar, which has 260 to 280 calories.”

For more great health and lifestyle content, visit me here at Completely You
Photo: @iStockphoto.com/paci77
Denise Foley   is Completely You’s News You Can Use” blogger. She is a veteran health writer, the former deputy editor and editor at large of Prevention, and co-author of four books on women’s health and parenting.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Could Our Drinking Water Be Causing Autism?

By Denise Foley for Completely You

I used to joke that we could achieve world peace if we just added Prozac to the drinking water.

Turns out I was wrong. There’s already Prozac in the drinking water and there’s no world peace. The fact is, in many places, the water is a complex cocktail of drugs, including the antidepressant Prozac and other psychoactive medicines. Roughly one in 10 Americans takes a drug for depression; about 80 percent of chemicals in those drugs are flushed from the body in urine and back into the water system.

Now a controversial new study suggests that happy pills bring anything but world peace. Researchers at Idaho State University found that these drug residues may turn on genes linked to autism . (See the study here.)

The concentrations of pharmaceuticals in drinking water are thought to be much lower than prescription doses. But the study’s researchers hypothesize that even small doses of drugs that affect the nervous system could have unanticipated effects in a fetus. “In a developing brain, the dosage may be doing something very different than it does in an adult human brain,” says Michael Thomas, Ph.D ., associate professor of bioinformatics at Idaho State and lead author of the study.

Thomas and his colleagues mixed a cocktail of three commonly prescribed psychoactive drugs (the anti-epileptic carbamazepine, and the two common antidepressants fluoxetine, aka Prozac, and venlafaxine, aka Effexor) at a concentration that was five to 10 times higher than seen downstream from sewage plants, but lower than the prescribed dose. They exposed fathead minnows to the drugs for 18 days, then analyzed the genes that were turned on -- the scientific term is “expressed” -- in the fishes’ brains.

They expected that the drugs would activate genes linked to many neurological disorders. But it was only the 324 genes associated with autism, mainly those involved with early brain development, which were changed.

What should you do?
The Idaho study is in line with other research that has found that women who take antidepressants while pregnant are more likely to have children with autism. But, cautions Thomas, fish aren’t humans. They’re not even mammals. So there’s no reason to avoid tap water if you’re pregnant, explains Thomas.

 However, if you are concerned, it could pay to invest in a reverse osmosis water filter, which can remove these drug residues, as well as other contaminants, from your drinking water. You can read more about these filters here and check out the National Drinking Water Database to see how contaminated the water is in your town.

For more great health and lifestyle content, visit me here at Completely You

Denise Foley   is Completely You’s News You Can Use” blogger. She is a veteran health writer, the former deputy editor and editor at large of Prevention, and co-author of four books on women’s health and parenting.