Health & Science

Some of the things they said were good for us, and some of the things we were told to avoid.

Some of the things they said were good for us ...

Googling can help sharpen the mind, especially if you’re older. “There’s an infinite amount of information on the Internet,” notes neuroscientist Susan Bookheimer, and the act of sifting through it for novel ideas helps to challenge and stimulate the brain. An hour a day spent info-trawling can increase blood flow to parts of the brain involved in decision-making and short-term memory—activity “that would tend to preserve your cognitive skills,” says Bookheimer.

Doodling helps you concentrate. By scrawling aimlessly during a dull meeting, you keep your mind busy enough to remain present in the moment, instead of drifting off entirely into daydreaming. Research subjects who were allowed to doodle while listening to a long phone message later recalled 30 percent more of the message’s details than subjects who just sat quietly. Doodling, says psychologist Jackie Andrade, “may be sufficient to stop daydreaming without affecting performance on the main task,” so you remember more without even trying.

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Feeling down sharpens your attention and makes you less gullible. True, happiness makes you friendlier and more creative, but it does so in part by removing a layer of skepticism. In the lab, sad people took fewer mental shortcuts: They could better recall specific events, made stronger written arguments, and were less likely to believe urban myths. Sadness “promotes information processing best suited to dealing with more demanding situations,” says psychologist Joseph Forgas. “Positive mood is not universally desirable.”

Looking up can extend a woman’s life. Scientists tracked the health of 100,000 women of middle age and older; after eight years, women classified as optimists were 14 percent more likely to be alive than their pessimistic counterparts. Optimists were also less likely to develop heart disease and far less likely to die from it. Women who scored high in “cynical hostility” were at even greater risk of dying, says lead researcher Hilary Tindle. “When you look at all of the risks, pessimists had everything in the wrong direction.”

Swearing increases your tolerance for pain. By using foul language, researchers say, you apparently raise your aggression level, which is known to numb people to physical discomfort. A British study found that subjects could keep their hands in ice-cold water much longer if they cursed freely while doing so; they also felt less pain afterward, compared with non­swearers. So let it rip, says psychologist Richard Stephens. “I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear.”

Grunting makes you more powerful. When you engage in a brief but forceful activity—lifting weights at the gym, say, or returning a tennis volley—you normally expel air. Grunting at that moment brings even more muscle fibers into play, generating additional force, says physical-therapy researcher Dennis O’Connell. In a study, college tennis players who grunted sped up their serves by 4.7 mph on average and their forehands by 4 mph. Grunting “can have a role in helping anyone do a maximal exertion,” O’Connell says.

Having a sister increases your odds of being happy and well adjusted. Women are generally more expressive and open to emotion than men, and often serve as the glue that keeps families close. “Sisters appear to encourage more open communication and cohesion in families,” says study author Tony Cassidy. That sense of connection translates into better mental health for the siblings.

Recessions may help us all live a little longer. When the economy tanks, people drink and eat less, sleep more, suffer fewer accidents, and live longer. Researchers found that Americans were actually healthier during the Great Depression than they were in prosperous times immediately before and after; mortality rates fell and life expectancy rose, as they also did during the recessions of 1921 and 1938. People also bond more closely during hard times, says study author José A. Tapia Granados, “and social support could have a protective effect on health.”

… and some of the things we were told to avoid

Positive thinking can make depressed people feel worse. In general, researchers found, repeating a phrase like, “I’m a lovable person” only lifts your mood if you have high self-esteem to begin with. People with a poor self-image find the phrase so unbelievable that it reminds them of how they really feel—not lovable—and thus makes them feel worse, says psychologist Joanne Wood. “Positive self-statements, despite their widespread endorsement, may backfire for the very people who need them the most.”

Canned soup contains Bisphenol A, or BPA, as do numerous other popular canned food items. BPA, is a chemical additive known to cause reproductive and hormone problems, and to raise the risk of diabetes and other diseases. BPA has been banned from use in baby bottles, but a Consumers Union study found troubling levels of BPA in various canned foods, including some marked “organic” or “BPA-free,” probably because it’s part of the epoxy lining in the cans. The chemical actually gets into “the food itself,” says Urvashi Rangan of Consumer Reports. “Consumers really don’t know what they’re getting when they pull a can off a shelf.”

Not venting your spleen could kill you. If you’ve been treated unfairly in the office or faced off with a boss or colleague, you might think it’s wise to keep quiet. But Swedish scientists found that men who kept their feelings pent up were far more likely to suffer a heart attack in subsequent years. “It’s not good to go away and just leave the conflict if you feel you have been badly treated,” says lead researcher Constanze Leineweber. “You have to act.”

Beach sand can make you sick. The same fecal bacteria, from sewage and runoff, that can close beaches to swimmers are actually more prevalent—and live longer—in the sand near the waterline. People who play in the sand are significantly more likely to come back from a beach trip with a stomach bug or diarrhea, researchers found. Children are more susceptible, and getting buried in the sand only increases the risk. Best to “use a hand sanitizer or wash hands after playing in the sand,” says researcher Tim Wade.

Divorce wrecks your health, at least temporarily. A University of Chicago study found that people who are divorced, separated, or widowed tend to ignore their health, exercise less, sleep poorly, and avoid the doctor. They’re also stressed, “which is itself a health risk,” says sociologist Linda Waite. The divorced and widowed suffer more chronic health problems than married people do, and they have more difficulty climbing stairs or walking short distances. Remarriage “puts you back on a healthy trajectory,” Waite says, but “from a lower point, because you didn’t take care of yourself for a year.”

Fruit juice is just as fattening as sugary soda. Eaten whole, fruits provide vitamins and fiber, but concentrated juice contains more calories per ounce than soda and a big wallop of fructose, which the body soon converts to fat. High doses of fructose, from whatever source, raise the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, says pediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig. “The upside of juice consumption is so infinitesimal compared to the downside that we shouldn’t even be having this discussion.”

Multitasking is a waste of time. People who like to do many things at once think they’re more adept at absorbing information. In fact they’re worse: They have weaker memories, are more distractible, and are slower to switch to new activities, a Stanford study found. “The shocking discovery of this research,” says communications researcher Clifford Nass, is that high-multitaskers “are lousy at everything that’s necessary for multitasking.”

Being elected president will age you quickly. Consider the stresses of the job: Your decisions have global weight, you’re always on call, and you’re isolated from friends—even on vacation you’re under constant guard. As a result, presidents age roughly twice as fast as the rest of us, a pace that takes a toll on their health and their looks. President Clinton’s hair turned completely white while in office, and George W. Bush hardly fared better. “If you look at a picture of him in 2000, he looked almost boyish,” says political scientist Robert Gilbert. “When he left office, he looked ravaged.”

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