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Response To Daily Stressors Could Affect Brain Health In Older Adults

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CORVALLIS, Ore. – Taking typical daily annoyances such as a long wait at the doctor’s office or a traffic jam on the freeway in stride may help preserve brain health in older adults, while emotional reactions could contribute to declines in cognition, a new study from Oregon State University has found.

“These results confirm that people’s daily emotions and how they respond to their stressors play an important role in cognitive health,” said Robert Stawski, an associate professor in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences and the study’s lead author.

“It’s not the stressor itself that contributes to mental declines but how a person responds that affects the brain.”

The findings contribute to a growing body of research that focused on daily stress as a risk factor for compromised mental, physical and cognitive health. The findings have vital real-world applications, given that the world’s fastest growing age group is adults 80 and over, said Stawski, who studies how stressful experiences influence health, well-being and cognition.

Brain health and cognition are important as we age. They contribute to one ability to function in day-to-day life and can reflect diseases including dementias and Alzheimer’s.

The findings were recently published online in Psychosomatic Medicine, the journal of American Psychosomatic Society. Co-authors include OSU students Eric Cerino and Dakota Witzel, and Stuart W.S. MacDonald of the University of Victoria.

For the study, researchers followed 111 older adults, ranging in age from 65 to 95, for 2½ years. Every six months, they participated in a series of cognitive assessments for six days over a two-week period.

During the assessments, participants looked at a series of two strings of numbers and were asked whether the same numbers appeared in the two strings, regardless of order. Past studies have linked fluctuations in how quickly people can do this exercise with decreased mental focus, cognitive aging and risk for dementia as well as structural and functional brain changes that reflect poor cognitive health. Each participant completed the numbers exercises for up to 30 sessions over the 2½-year period.

The participants also were asked about stressors experienced that day by themselves, a family member or a close friend; rated how they felt right at that moment, choosing from an array of positive and negative emotions and a range of intensity; and filled out a checklist of physical symptoms.

In the overall comparison, those who responded to stressful events with more negative emotions and reported a more dour mood in general showed greater fluctuations in their performance, which suggests worse mental focus and cognitive health among the more strongly negative and reactive people.

But by following each person over time, the scientists also could track what happened on an individual basis, and striking age differences emerged. For the oldest participants — late 70s to mid-90s — being more reactive to stressors than usual also contributed to worse cognitive performance.

In contrast, people in their late 60s to mid-70s actually did better on the test if they reported more stressors.

“These relatively younger participants may have a more active lifestyle to begin with, more social and professional engagement, which could sharpen their mental functioning,” Stawski said.

Older adults should be aware of their emotional reactions to stressful events and explore stress-lowering strategies, if needed, to preserve brain health and cognitive function, he said.

“We can’t get rid of daily stressors completely,” Stawski said.

“But endowing people with the skills to weather stressors when they happen could pay dividends in cognitive health.”

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Report Reveals Link Between Air Pollution And Increased Risk For Miscarriage

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Air quality has been associated with numerous adverse health outcomes from asthma to pre-term birth. Researchers at University of Utah Health found women living along the Wasatch Front — the most populous region in the state of Utah — had a higher risk (16 percent) of miscarriage following short-term exposure to elevated air pollution. The results are available online on December 5 in the journal Fertility and Sterility.

“Not being from Salt Lake originally, I noticed a pattern in the relation to air quality and pregnancy loss,” said Matthew Fuller, M.D., assistant professor of Surgery at U of U Health and senior author on the paper.

“I knew this was an understudied question so we decided to dig deeper.”

Fuller joined University of Utah research analyst Claire Leiser on a retrospective study consisting of more than 1,300 women (54 percent Caucasian, 38 percent Hispanic, and other/missing 8 percent; average age 28 years). The women in the study sought help at the U of U emergency department following a miscarriage (up to 20-weeks gestation) between 2007 to 2015.

The team examined the risk of miscarriage during a three- or seven-day window following a spike in the concentration of three common air pollutants: small particulate matter (PM 2.5), nitrogen dioxide and ozone. The study excluded women who lived outside Utah.

“We are really only seeing the most severe cases during a small window of time,” said Leiser, first author on the paper.

“These results are not the whole picture.”

Leiser notes the results suggest there could be an increased risk for an individual. Their research only captured women who sought help at an emergency department at one hospital in the region. It does not account for women who may have sought outpatient care through their obstetric or primary care providers.

The team found a slight increased risk in miscarriage for women exposed to elevated levels of nitrogen dioxide (16 percent for 10 ppb increase during the seven-day window). Although small particulate matter does track with nitrogen dioxide, these results did not significantly associate with an increased risk of miscarriage.

“While we live in a pretty unique geographic area, the problems we face when it comes to air pollution are not unique,” said Fuller.

“As the planet warms and population booms, air pollution is going to become a bigger problem not only in the developing world but across the United States.”

The Wasatch Front experiences short-periods of poor air quality, primarily during the winter months, when inversions trap pollutants close to the ground (for the 7-day window: PM2.5 min = 0.3 μg/m3; PM2.5 max = 73.0 μg/m3; O3 min = 4 ppb; O3 max= 80 ppb; NO2min = 0.5 ppb; NO2 max = 65 ppb). The researchers tracked air quality by zip code, establishing six designated air basins within the Wasatch Front. They compared air quality in each basin to their patients’ outcomes.

The team conducted a case cross-over study that estimated a woman’s risk of miscarriage multiple times in a month where air pollution exposure varied. This approach removed other risk factors, like maternal age, from the study. The scientists were unable to ascertain the age of the fetus at the time of the miscarriage and were unable pinpoint a critical period when the fetus may be most vulnerable to pollutants.

“The results of this study are upsetting, and we need to work together as a society to find constructive solutions,” Fuller said.

Fuller recommends women speak with their doctor about any health concerns. Women can manage the risk by using a N95 particulate respirator face mask to filter out pollutants or avoid outdoor physical activity on poor air quality days. Women can also use filters to lower indoor pollution and, if possible, time conception to avoid seasonal episodes of poor air quality.

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Alcohol Intake May Be Key to Long-term Weight Loss for People with Diabetes

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Research shows that losing weight can help prevent or delay the onset of diabetes. While best practice for weight loss often includes decreasing or eliminating calories from alcohol, few studies examine whether people who undergo weight loss treatment report changes in alcohol intake and whether alcohol influences their weight loss.

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing (Penn Nursing) suggests that alcohol consumption may attenuate long-term weight loss in adults with Type 2 diabetes.

In the study, close to 5,000 people who were overweight and had diabetes were followed for four years. One group participated in Intensive Lifestyle Intervention (ILI) and the other in a control group consisting of diabetes support and education. Data showed that participants in the ILI group who abstained from alcohol consumption over the four-year period lost more weight than those who drank any amount during the intervention. Results from the study also showed that heavy drinkers in the ILI group were less likely to have clinically significant weight loss over the four years.

“This study indicates that while alcohol consumption is not associated with short‐term weight loss during a lifestyle intervention, it is associated with worse long‐term weight loss in participants with overweight or obesity and Type 2 diabetes,” says lead investigator Ariana M. Chao, PhD, CRNP, Assistant Professor of Nursing in the Department of Biobehavioral Health Sciences.

“Patients with Type 2 diabetes who are trying to lose weight should be encouraged to limit alcohol consumption.”

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Hang In There. As Couples Age, Humor Replaces Bickering

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Honeymoon long over? Hang in there. A new UC Berkeley study shows those prickly disagreements that can mark the early and middle years of marriage mellow with age as conflicts give way to humor and acceptance.

Researchers analyzed videotaped conversations between 87 middle-aged and older husbands and wives who had been married for 15 to 35 years, and tracked their emotional interactions over the course of 13 years. They found that as couples aged, they showed more humor and tenderness towards one another.

Overall, the findings, just published in the journal Emotion, showed an increase in such positive behaviors as humor and affection and a decrease in negative behaviors such as defensiveness and criticism. The results challenge long-held theories that emotions flatten or deteriorate in old age and point instead to an emotionally positive trajectory for long-term married couples.

“Our findings shed light on one of the great paradoxes of late life,” said study senior author Robert Levenson, a UC Berkeley psychology professor.

“Despite experiencing the loss of friends and family, older people in stable marriages are relatively happy and experience low rates of depression and anxiety. Marriage has been good for their mental health.”

Consistent with previous findings from Levenson’s Berkeley Psychophysiology Laboratory, the longitudinal study found that wives were more emotionally expressive than their husbands, and as they grew older they tended toward more domineering behavior and less affection. But generally, across all the study’s age and gender cohorts, negative behaviors decreased with age.

“Given the links between positive emotion and health, these findings underscore the importance of intimate relationships as people age, and the potential health benefits associated with marriage,” said co-lead author Alice Verstaen, who conducted the study as a Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System.

The results are the latest to emerge from a 25-year UC Berkeley study headed by Levenson of more than 150 long-term marriages. The participants, now mostly in their 70s, 80s and 90s, are heterosexual couples from the San Francisco Bay Area whose relationships Levenson and fellow researchers began tracking in 1989.

In their investigation of marital relationships, researchers viewed 15-minute interactions between spouses in a laboratory setting as they discussed shared experiences and areas of conflict. They tracked the emotional changes every few years.

The spouses’ listening and speaking behaviors were coded and rated according to their facial expressions, body language, verbal content and tone of voice. Emotions were coded into the categories of anger, contempt, disgust, domineering behavior, defensiveness, fear, tension, sadness, whining, interest, affection, humor, enthusiasm and validation.

Researchers found that both middle-aged and older couples, regardless of their satisfaction with their relationship, experienced increases in overall positive emotional behaviors with age, while experiencing a decrease in overall negative emotional behaviors.

“These results provide behavioral evidence that is consistent with research suggesting that, as we age, we become more focused on the positives in our lives,” Verstaen said.

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