Month: July 2015

New Study: Testing for Alzheimer’s Using Saliva

It’s clear we’ve entered a new age of medical testing. Whereas in previous generations, testing for disease and genetic conditions seemed nearly impossible, we’ve managed to develop relatively easy, innovative,  and effective ways doing just that, with surprising accuracy. Case and point: scientists may be able to determine a person’s risk for Alzheimer’s by testing their saliva. According to a new study published by Dr. Shraddha Sapkota, a graduate of neuroscience from the University of Alberta, Canada, saliva has promising potential for both predicting and tracking cognitive decline in older adults.

Better Testing For Alzheimer’s Needed

Medical News Today reports that “Alzheimer’s disease affects around 5.3 million people in the US and is the sixth leading cause of death in the country. It is predicted that by 2050, around 13.5 million Americans will have the condition.” Currently, there is no single test one can take to determine whether or not they have Alzheimer’s or are at risk of developing the condition. An Alzheimer’s diagnosis requires extensive medical evaluation, including physical and neurological testing, all of which can be tedious, not to mention expensive.

Dr. Sapkota and his colleagues note that many of these diagnostic methods for Alzheimer’s can be invasive and costly, which has prompted them to search for a simpler, cheaper technique. While there is no way to halt the progression of Alzheimer’s, early detection can allow the individual to better benefit from medications which treat the symptoms of the condition. Moreover, early detection of Alzheimer’s can raise the likelihood of individuals participating in clinical trials aimed at finding a cure for the disease, therefore increasing the chances of treating Alzheimer’s once and for all.

New Research Aims at Prevention and Early Detection

The study analyzed the saliva samples of 22 participants who had Alzheimer’s, 25 who had mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, and 35 participants with normal cognitive functioning. These samples were analyzed using liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry, or LCMS, to examine certain compounds within the saliva. In doing so, “The researchers identified compounds that were more pronounced in the saliva of participants with Alzheimer’s and MCI, differentiating them from healthy participants. These findings were validated in a further sample including seven participants with Alzheimer’s, 10 with MCI and 10 cognitively normal participants.” Additionally, further analysis revealed that the presence of higher levels of certain substances in the participant’s saliva was linked with poor cognitive functioning. For example, “a higher level of a certain compound in the saliva of participants with Alzheimer’s was linked to slower information processing speed.”

Where Does This Type of Research Lead?

But what is the future of this research? The team believes that the results of this study can potentially lead to more inexpensive, noninvasive, diagnostic techniques for Alzheimer’s that can still produce reliable results, although more research is, of course, needed. However, Sapkota appears optimistic, saying: “Saliva is easily obtained, safe and affordable, and has promising potential for predicting and tracking cognitive decline, but we’re in the very early stages of this work and much more research is needed.” Moreover, he adds: “Equally important is the possibility of using saliva to find targets for treatment to address the metabolic component of Alzheimer’s, which is still not well understood. This study brings us closer to solving that mystery.”

Interestingly, this is not the only recent breakthrough in Alzheimer’s research. Another study reveals a possible correlation between a protein in one’s cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF, and it’s ability to predict the decline from MCI to Alzheimer’s. Conducted by Dr. Maartje Kester of the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam and his colleagues, this study assessed samples of CSF taken over a 2 year period from 162 participants with either MCI, Alzheimer’s, or normal cognitive function. Their analysis revealed that participants with Alzheimer’s possessed higher baseline levels of neurogranin, a protein in the brain, in their CSF samples than did participants with MCI or normal cognitive functioning. In addition, “baseline neurogranin levels were higher among participants whose MCI had progressed to Alzheimer’s, indicating that the protein may be a predictor of cognitive decline among individuals with MCI.”

Researchers also found that neurogranin levels increased over time for participants with normal cognitive functioning, a result which was not mirrored in participants with either MCI or Alzheimer’s. Because of this, Dr. Kester believes that “This may indicate that neurogranin levels in CSF reflect very early synaptic loss in Alzheimer’s and may be useful for early detection.”

New Insight into a Silent Killer

The studies of both Dr. Kester and Dr. Sapkota have succeeded in providing new insight into how we identify and define Alzheimer’s, particularly in its earlier stages. This can potentially assist in diagnosing Alzheimer’s and even predicting its occurrence, which can allow for better and more effective treatment options for those diagnosed. With early enough diagnosis, there may even be hope for the discovery of a cure. In the meantime, further research is needed, but thankfully, the future looks promising.

What You Don’t Know Acid Reflux and Antacids

Chances are you’re no stranger to the stresses of daily life. Because of it, many of us may be accustomed to that burning sensation in our chests that we may have come to associate with stress. But is heartburn really caused by stress? Antacids are seemingly a quick and easy fix for the discomfort but could they actually be bad for you? Recent studies are shedding new light not only on how we understand heartburn, but also how we treat it.

What Exactly is Heartburn?

First, let’s take a look at what heartburn is: scientifically speaking, what we identify as heartburn is most commonly a symptom of acid reflux. Acid reflux, formally known as Gastroesophageal Reflux, occurs when stomach acid is regurgitated into the esophagus. This causes a burning sensation which might feel like it’s coming from one’s heart. What is actually happening is your food pipe and stomach are almost working backwards. Rather than just accepting food sent down, the stomach is sending stomach acid back up. Because of the close association, many people like to use the terms heartburn and acid reflux interchangeably. In reality, the former is really a symptom of the latter.

Causes of Acid Reflux & Heartburn

But what causes acid reflux? For many, acid reflux is only occasional and is usually the result of some kind of food or drink which doesn’t really sit well with their stomachs. The lower esophageal sphincter, which is supposed to close completely once food passes from the esophagus to the stomach, doesn’t close all the way or opens too frequently. A potential physical trigger for this can be laying down or bending over at the waist too soon after eating, which can cause stomach acid to rise up as the body is still digesting. Acid reflux is more likely to occur after a large meal, especially one high in fat, spice, or contains any of the following ingredients: chocolate, garlic, mint, tomato, onions, or citrus. Acid reflux can also potentially be triggered by the consumption of caffeinated or alcoholic beverages.

Regular Heartburn Might Mean More Serious Problems

However, for those of us who have more than the occasional bout of heartburn, the cause may go beyond dietary habits. Recurrent acid reflux is classified as Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease or GERD. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases or NIDDK, GERD is a “more serious and long-lasting form of GER.” The NIDDK also states that “GER that occurs more than twice a week for a few weeks could be GERD. GERD can lead to more serious health problems over time.” It is worth noting that people of all ages can have GERD, some for unknown reasons, but the risk is higher if you’re overweight or obese, pregnant, taking certain medications which may contribute to frequent acid reflux, or are regularly exposed to secondhand smoke. Another potential cause is a hiatal hernia which can cause the upper part of the stomach to push up through the diaphragm into the chest cavity which can potentially lead to GERD.

How Stress and Acid Reflux Are Connected

But the question remains: can stress cause acid reflux or GERD? The answer is most likely not. Studies have shown that many people who report feelings of heartburn while stressed aren’t experiencing any increase in stomach acid production or reflux. So what is this feeling? While not producing excess amounts of stomach acid, people under stress may in fact be more sensitive to small amounts of acid in the esophagus. This is because stress tends to make people more sensitive and receptive to physical discomfort in general. So when you’re stressed you’re more likely to notice slight changes in acid production you wouldn’t notice otherwise. Further, stress can cause a depletion in the production of prostaglandins which are supposed to protect the stomach from the effects of its own acid. This can contribute to increased sensitivity to stomach acid which produces feelings similar to what we call heartburn.

Treating Heartburn and Acid Reflux

So how can we treat heartburn? For most of us, the solution is a trusty antacid. But recent studies reveal that antacids may be more of a problem than a solution. These findings show that adults using certain antacids known as proton pump inhibitors, or PPIs, are 16-21% more likely to have a heart attack than those not using the antacid. Medical News Today reports that “In 2009, they were the third most taken type of drug in the US, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates 1 in 14 Americans have used them. Over time, however, experts have begun to question the safety of the drug.” Initially, it was believed that PPIs were only risky to those with existing coronary artery disease, since the use of the antiplatelet drug Clopidogrel was likely to interact poorly with a PPI. However, the risk is now believed to extend further to all usage of PPIs. Tests conducted to determine the risk of PPIs on patients with no prior history of heart disease have revealed that they may very well be put at an increased risk.

It is worth noting that antacids containing the suffix “prazole”, like Omeprazole and Lansoprazole are part of this class of PPIs under investigation. While currently their future is unclear, Dr. Nicholas Leeper, a vascular medicine specialist at Stanford explains that “Our report raises concerns that these drugs – which are available over the counter and are among the most commonly prescribed drugs in the world – may not be as safe as we previously assumed.” According to Nigam H. Shah, professor of biomedical informatics at Stanford, “By looking at data from people who were given PPI drugs primarily for acid reflux and had no prior history of heart disease, our data-mining pipeline signals an association with a higher rate of heart attacks” However, Shah reports no such increased risk identifiable in patients treated with H2 blockers, another type of antacid. More studies are needed to confirm whether or not PPIs are in fact dangerous to the larger population, but these initial results encourage caution. The question is thus raised across the medical community of whether PPIs will continue to be a safe method of addressing various conditions including GERD.

florida coastal landscape scene

Walking Off Depression – Looking to Nature to Improve Within

It’s no secret that we could all probably benefit from going outside and getting some fresh air from time to time. Unfortunately, as we get older, we often grow more sedentary. Many of us may become residents of our couches and living rooms. But new studies show that regular access to nature can actually improve the quality of life in older adults. This is because nature is an excellent place to “get away from it all”, and spending some time with nature has been shown to promote physical, mental, and even spiritual well-being for many adults. While this has long been suspected, research conducted by a student from the University of Minnesota with a research team in Vancouver, B.C. seems to support this claim.

How Nature Affects Well-Being

This study, titled “Therapeutic landscapes and wellbeing later in life: impacts of blue and green spaces for older adults”, was published in the journal Heath and Place which showcases research which examines the relationship between health, healthcare, and location. This study in particular revealed that blue and green spaces tend to promote feelings of renewal, restoration, and spiritual connectedness in older adults. Such spaces also provided a venue for social engagement, including planned activities with friends and family as well as random encounters across generations.

Jessica Finlay, a lead author on the paper and former research assistant on the project notes that:

“Accessibility to everyday green and blue spaces encourages seniors to simply get out the door. This in turn motivates them to be active physically, spiritually and socially, which can offset chronic illness, disability and isolation.”

In other words, contact with the outdoors in a way disrupts the sedentary and mundane lifestyle of older adults by providing them with a new environment to engage with outside the home, one with proven physical and psychological benefits and various external stimuli to keep them mentally active.

Going Outdoors Daily Can Improve Mental Health

The implementation of more natural spaces for people, both old and young, to engage in can be relatively simple. Smaller features like a bench facing flowers, a garden, or a koi pond, can be utilized by urban planners and act as a natural resource for older adults to feel at peace whilst simultaneously being stimulated outside of the home. In fact, a study published by the US National Library of  Medicine seems to support these claims. Titled “Going outdoors daily predicts long-term functional and health benefits among ambulatory older people”, the study reveals that “Participants going out daily at age 70 reported significantly fewer new complaints at age 77 of musculoskeletal pain, sleep problems, urinary incontinence, and decline in activities of daily living (ADLs). Logistic regression analysis indicated that not going out daily at age 70 was predictive of subsequent dependence in ADL, poor self-rated health, and urinary incontinence at age 77.”

Finlay claims that after observing the daily life of several seniors aged 65 to 86, she discovered:

“how a relatively mundane experience, such as hearing the sound of water or a bee buzzing among flowers, can have a tremendous impact on overall health.”

External sensory stimuli is incredibly important in combating not only boredom but also potentially remedy feelings of helplessness, loneliness, or advanced mental regression. Discussing Finlay and the research team in Vancouver’s findings, Medical News Today reports that “While younger generations may use green and blue spaces more to escape and rejuvenate from their busy work life, our participants used nature to be active physically, spiritually, and socially in later life…Natural environments enable older adults to uphold daily structure in retirement and provide opportunities for diverse activities outside the home. This is important to quality of later life by decreasing boredom, isolation, and loneliness; as well as boosting one’s sense of purpose and accomplishment.”

They also note the blue spaces in particular are especially good locations for physiotherapy and non-weight bearing activity like wading, swimming, and walking in water. Not to mention, waterfront environments are typically very relaxing spaces and this relaxing nature is also highly beneficial physically, mentally, and spiritually. However, both blue and green spaces provide many excellent opportunities for exercise and relaxation among older adults. Concluding her research, Finlay argues that “While our research may seem intuitive, it creates conversations on how to build communities that serve people across their entire lifetime. We don’t just need a playground for children, we also need sheltered benches for the grandparents to watch them… it gives credence to some small but significant elements of everyday later life. Hopefully it will help urban planners and developers build communities that span a lifetime.” These communities will benefit not only older adults but people of all ages as natural spaces are being incorporated into otherwise urban settings devoid of these environmental escapes.

Take A Step Outdoors and Breath In the Air

That being said, it’s important to remember but sometimes easily forgotten that the health and well-being of older adults is just as significant as that of younger ones. This research shows us that as we get older it’s important to remain socialized and to develop a balance between our indoor and outdoor activity. The latter helps enhance mental and physical health. Nature acts as an ideal space for older adults to stimulate their bodies and minds through exercise and both planned and spontaneous interaction. Because of this, its important to incorporate the outdoors into one’s daily regimen, especially as we age. Fresh air and sunshine will do you more good than you may think.

six animated drawing of different sleep positions including snippet of what each indicates about persoanlity

How Sleep Position Effects Personality

Ah, sleep. Seldom do we get enough. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, sleep disorders are a national public health epidemic. Adults who get insufficient amounts of sleep are statistically more likely to suffer from motor vehicle crashes, industrial disasters, and medical and other occupational errors. They also note that those with chronic sleep deficiency are more prone to certain illnesses like hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, and even cancer! Citing a study conducted by the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, or BRFSS, the CDC reports that: “among 74,571 adult respondents in 12 states, 35.3% reported <7 hours of sleep during a typical 24-hour period, 48.0% reported snoring, 37.9% reported unintentionally falling asleep during the day at least once in the preceding month, and 4.7% reported nodding off or falling asleep while driving at least once in the preceding month.”

This is the first CDC surveillance report that includes estimates of driving while drowsy and unintentionally falling asleep during the day. Further, they note that “The National Department of Transportation estimates drowsy driving to be responsible for 1,550 fatalities and 40,000 nonfatal injuries annually in the United States.” How much sleep should we be getting? It varies depending on age, but the CDC recommends that school-age children get at least 9 to 10 hours of sleep each day where adults should get at least 7 to 8 hours.

Study Reveals New Insights into Sleep Positions

But there may be more to sleep than we initially realized. While it’s important to make sure you’re getting enough sleep to stay safe and productive, recent studies have been discovering that exactly how you sleep may indicate certain characteristics about your personality. To put it more precisely, the body position you typically adopt while sleeping may reveal what kind of person you tend to be while awake. The science behind it is thus: how you sleep can affect the quality of sleep you’re getting and thus can affect your behavior while awake. So its not just superficial. One such examination of sleep positions conducted by Dr. Chris Idzikowski, director of the Sleep Assessment and Advisory Service in London, provides a breakdown of various common sleep positions and how exactly they might determine certain characteristics of the individual’s personality.

The Six Positions of Sleep and What They Mean About Us

1. Log Position

According to Idzikowski’s research, approximately 15% of sample of individuals studied classified as “log” sleepers. Those who sleep in what he refers to as the “log” position – that is, on one’s side with one’s arms, legs, and posture more or less straight – are likely to be more sociable and well-liked. However, they may occasionally fall victim to being gullible as a result of their innate desire for social acceptance.

2. Yearner Position

The yearner position is not entirely unlike the log position however there is a slight difference. Those who sleep in this position are likely to have their arms outreached as if grasping or “yearning” for something. Approximately 13% of the individuals studied slept in the yearner position and, according to Idzikowski’s findings, these individuals are more likely to have a more open nature but are usually suspicious and cynical of people and situations. “Yearners” may be slower to make up their minds but can be quite fastidious once they’ve made a decision.

3. Starfish Position

Idzikowski reveals that approximately 5% of those studied tended to sleep in the starfish position which consists of lying on one’s back with both arms stretched upwards towards the pillow. Those who typically sleep in this position are more likely to be loyal friends who are supportive, giving help whenever needed, and being particularly good listeners. That being said, they seldom find comfort in being the center of attention.

4. Soldier Position

The soldier position is characterized by the individual lying on their back with both arms at their sides, not unlike a soldier in the barracks. It is estimated that approximately 8% of sample group identified as soldier-sleepers. But what does this mean regarding their personality? Idzikowski believes that those who tend to sleep in the soldier position are more likely to be quiet and reserved. They also tend to set themselves and others to high standards.

5. Freefall Position

Approximately 7% of the sample group utilized the freefall position, consisting of lying on one’s stomach with one’s hands around their pillow and their head turned to one side. Idzikowski’s study reveals that freefall sleepers tend to behave brashly but are actually fairly thin-skinned and sensitive to criticism. They also tend to avoid extreme situations.

6. Fetal Position

This is by far the most popular position with around 41% of the 1,000 people surveyed sleeping this way. Idzikowski describes those who sleep in the fetal position as demonstrating a tougher exterior which masks a more sensitive interior. Fetal sleepers also tend to be shy upon initially meeting someone new but eventually will warm up to them and relax. Interestingly, Idzikowski’s study noted that twice as many women tend to be fetal sleepers than men.

** The remaining 39% of participants in the sample group claimed that they did not know what position they typically slept in and therefore could not be classified. 5% of these individuals claimed that they slept in a different position every night. 

How Sleep Position Affects Your Health

While this new information is interesting, what does it reveal about our sleeping health? Idzikowski’s study ultimately concluded that each position provided its own unique health effects. He found that the freefall position was better for digestion, while those who slept in the starfish or soldier positions were likely to experience snoring and an overall bad night’s sleep. According to Idzikowski: “Lying down flat means that stomach contents can more readily be worked back up into the mouth, while those who lie on their back may end up snoring and breathing less well during the night…Both these postures may not necessarily awaken the sleeper but could cause a less refreshing night’s sleep.”

This study also revealed that those who slept in one position typically seldom changed them. Each position provides its own unique benefits and drawbacks for the individual, ranging from improved health or general comfort to sleeping difficulties. However, regardless of which position you sleep in, it is most important to remember to get enough sleep! Getting enough sleep is essential to good physical and mental health and a good way to prevent any unnecessary hazards due to drowsiness while one is awake.

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