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7 unexpected health benefits of 2011
From the depression-fighting effects of coffee to chocolate's heart-healing properties, researchers made several surprising discoveries this year
Feel free to lay into that holiday chocolate: Researchers say gobbling up cocoa helps decrease your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Feel free to lay into that holiday chocolate: Researchers say gobbling up cocoa helps decrease your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Oliver Eltinger/Corbis

1. Chocolate can protect your heart and your brain. British researchers analyzed studies involving more than 100,000 people and discovered that those who reported eating the most chocolate — whether in cookies, candy bars, or milk shakes — were 37 percent less likely to develop cardiovascular diseases and 29 percent less likely to have a stroke than those who ate the least. Cocoa's antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties may provide some heart-health benefits, and the pleasure of eating chocolate could also reduce stress. Study author Oscar Franco says it's still best to enjoy chocolate treats "in a moderate manner," since they often come loaded with sugar, fat, and calories.

2. Behaving yourself as a child brings big rewards in adulthood. Researchers tracked more than 1,000 people from toddlerhood into their early 30s and found that the more self-control they showed as kids, the healthier, wealthier, and happier they were as grown-ups. By contrast, children who struggled to complete tasks and handle frustration without lashing out at their peers were more likely to be overweight, drug dependent, and ridden with debt as adults. The study's authors say that self-control can be taught and nurtured with practice, and that no matter what a child's circumstances, "good parenting can improve self-control and improve life success."

3. Feeling envious helps you focus. Psychologists found that when they asked volunteers to recall a time when they'd coveted something belonging to a friend, they proved to be much better than others at remembering details of a text. And volunteers paid much closer attention to stories about people they envied than to ones about people they didn't. "We can't get our minds off people who have advantages we want for ourselves," says Texas Christian University psychologist Sarah E. Hill. Envying our successful peers heightens our powers of memory and observation, and may also help us learn how to win or steal some of that success for ourselves.

4. Drinking coffee wards off depression. And the more you sip, the better it works. A Harvard University study found that women who regularly drank four or more cups of coffee per day were 20 percent less likely to become depressed than those who drank one cup or less. Researchers already knew that a jolt of caffeine activates neuro­transmitters that boost feelings of well-being right after you take a drink, but study author Alberto Ascherio says it also protects mental health over the long term.

5. Meditation fights depression, too. Practiced as part of mindfulness therapy — a treatment with roots in Buddhism and yoga — it can help people with mood disorders feel better without drugs. "I was skeptical at first," says psychologist Stefan Hofmann. "I wondered, 'Why on earth should this work?'" But in reviewing previous studies, he and his colleagues found strong evidence that meditation relieved anxiety, quelled negative emotions, and was often as effective as antidepressants at preventing relapses of depression. Training patients to observe their own immediate thoughts, experts say, can loosen the grip those feelings have on their minds.

6. Listening to music is as thrilling as sex — at least to our brains. McGill University neuroscientists scanned the brains of volunteers enjoying a favorite piece of instrumental music and found that as the climax approached, regions related to planning and anticipation released dopamine — the same neurochemical that makes us feel good when we eat, take psychoactive drugs, or engage in carnal relations. When the climax of the song actually arrived, so did another round of dopamine. The study, says neurologist Gottfried Schlaug, "really nails" the link between the neurochemical and listening pleasure.

7. White-fleshed produce defends against strokes. A Dutch study found that eating fruits and vegetables like cucumbers, cauliflower, and bananas appears to reduce the risk of stroke by 50 percent — provided you get at least 6 ounces, or one large apple's worth, per day. The "results were surprising," says study author Linda Oude Griep, who found that only foods with white flesh had any effect on stroke risk, even though her fellow nutritionists tend to recommend foods with rich coloring, such as sweet potatoes, beets, and kale.

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