What was good and bad for us in 2018
Some of the things they said were good for us ...
Organic foods may reduce cancer risk. For almost five years, researchers in France regularly asked nearly 70,000 volunteers how often they ate organic fruit, vegetables, meat, and other products. During that period, the quarter of participants who ate the most organic foods were 25 percent less likely to get cancer than the quarter who ate the least, even after accounting for age, income, and other risk factors. Lead author Julia Baudry suspects the disparity is because organic foods have lower levels of pesticides, which can mimic hormones in the body and increase cancer risk. Promoting organic food consumption, she says, could be a “promising preventive strategy against cancer.”
Holding hands can reduce physical pain. In a University of Colorado Boulder study, 22 women were subjected to mild pain; first when their male partner was holding their hand, and then when he was not. The women reported that holding hands reduced the intensity of their pain by an average of 34 percent. Brain scans taken during the experiment showed that when the couple linked hands, their brain waves became synchronized—and that this “coupling” effect was even greater when the women were in pain. Lead author Pavel Goldstein says the research “illustrates the power and importance of human touch.”
Saunas could be as beneficial for your heart as moderate exercise. In a study in Finland, 102 middle-aged adults with at least one heart disease risk factor—such as high blood pressure or obesity—had a 30-minute sauna session. Afterward, their blood pressure was lower, their heart rate was higher, and their arteries had gained elasticity. Heat exposure can widen blood vessels and improve blood flow, and sweating has a natural diuretic effect, lowering blood pressure. “Sauna use is recommended,” says co-author Tanjaniina Laukkanen, “and it seems that more is beneficial.”
Full-fat dairy may help protect against heart disease and stroke. Researchers examined data from more than 130,000 people across 21 countries over nine years. Participants who ate two or more daily servings of full-fat dairy—a serving was 8 ounces of milk or yogurt or a half-ounce of cheese—had a 22 percent lower risk of heart disease, a 34 percent lower risk of stroke, and a 23 percent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Study author Mahshid Dehghan says that while full-fat dairy is high in saturated fat, it contains other important nutrients, including calcium and vitamin K.
To-do lists could help you sleep. A Baylor University study divided nearly 60 volunteers into two groups before a strictly enforced bedtime: half were asked to write a list of things they needed to do over the next few days, and the other half listed tasks they’d already completed. Brain scans taken as they slept found that the to-do-list writers dozed off nine minutes faster on average—an effect similar to that of some pharmaceutical sleeping aids. “Throughout the day, we have all these things cycling through our head,” says lead author Michael Scullin. Writing “helps us hit the Pause button.”
Leg exercises appear to be crucial for brain health. Researchers immobilized the hind legs of mice for 28 days, then examined the subventricular zone in their brains, where neural stem cells produce new neurons. They found that the number of neural stem cells—which help the brain renew itself—had plummeted by 70 percent. Declines in oxygen levels associated with reduced physical activity had also altered the rodents’ metabolism. The research suggests that leg movement sends signals to the brain that trigger new cell growth.
Turmeric could help improve memory and ease depression among those with age-related mental decline. Researchers recruited 40 volunteers, ages 50 to 90, all with memory complaints but none with dementia. Half took curcumin, an active compound of the Indian spice turmeric, twice a day for 18 months, while the other half received a placebo. Those taking curcumin saw a 28 percent improvement in memory function, chalked up better mood scores, and had less plaque buildup in the brain. Study leader Gary Small says curcumin may reduce brain inflammation, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s and depression.
... and some of the things we were told to avoid
Grilled food may increase the risk for high blood pressure. Harvard researchers analyzed the diets of some 103,000 people for up to 16 years. Those who ate grilled, broiled, or roasted meats or fish more than 15 times a month were 17 percent more likely to develop high blood pressure than people who ate them fewer than four times a month. And participants who preferred their meats well done were 15 percent more likely to suffer hypertension than those who opted for rarer meats. Lead researcher Gang Liu says that chemicals produced by cooking meats at high temperatures induce oxidative stress, inflammation, and insulin resistance in animals, possibly leading to a raised risk of developing high blood pressure.
Ties constrict blood flow to the brain. A German research team asked 15 men to put on a tie, make a Windsor knot, and then undergo three MRI scans: with their collar open and tie loose; with the tie tightened to the point of slight discomfort; and then with it loose again. The scans showed that a tightly secured necktie reduces blood flow to the brain by an average of 7.5 percent. Researchers say tie wearing may have at least a temporary effect on men’s brain function, particularly if they have chronic health issues such as diabetes or heart disease.
Disinfectants could make children overweight by altering their gut bacteria. Researchers in Canada found that infants who lived in households where antimicrobial disinfectants were used every week were twice as likely—at ages 3 to 4 months—to have higher levels of Lachnospiraceae, a gut bacteria linked in animal studies to increased levels of body fat and insulin resistance. By age 3, those children were more likely to be overweight or obese than kids from homes where surface cleaners and other disinfectants weren’t used as regularly.
Bottled water almost always contains microplastics. A study of 259 water bottles from the U.S. and eight other countries found that 93 percent were contaminated with pieces of plastic less that 5mm long. The researchers found an average of 10 plastic particles per liter of water. They remain unsure how or when this contamination occurs, or how plastic in the body affects human health. “It’s not about pointing fingers at particular brands,” says study author Sherri Mason. “It’s really showing that this is everywhere, that plastic has become such a pervasive material in our society.”
Staying up late could reduce your lifespan. Researchers tracked some 430,000 adults for nearly seven years and found that night owls had a 10 percent greater risk of early death than those who woke early. People who burned the midnight oil were also more likely to have chronic health issues such as diabetes, neurological disorders, and respiratory disease. Study author Kristen Knutson says those naturally inclined to rise late feel pressure to conform to other people’s schedules, leaving them anxious and sleep deprived. “There’s a problem for the night owl who’s trying to live in the morning-lark world,” she says.
Following sports makes you miserable. Using 3 million responses to a happiness-monitoring app and three seasons’ worth of results from soccer matches, researchers in the U.K. calculated that the joy fans feel when their team wins is outweighed—2 to 1—by the misery they suffer when the team loses. Fans’ happiness score—measured on a 100-point scale—jumped about 3.9 points when their local team won. Following a loss, it fell by 7.8 points. Researchers say these “quite dramatic” effects add up over time, and are more pronounced among those who attend matches or expect their teams to win.