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Muscle Strength: Use It Or Lose It 

Even when you’re young and healthy, not using your legs for as little as two weeks can sap a third of your muscle strength. New research from the University of Copenhagen reveals that immobility lasting for just two weeks would reduce the leg muscle strength of a young man to that of someone 40 to 50 years older. The Danish researchers looked into the question of how inactivity affects leg muscle strength by immobilizing young and older male volunteers with a leg pad for two weeks. They report that while the young men lost up to a third of their muscle strength, the older ones lost about one-fourth. That loss is more significant than it may seem since the older men presumably already had reduced muscle strength due to age and would end up with much less physical capability than the younger group, the researchers reported. They found that biking three or four times a week for six weeks after the period of immobility didn’t completely restore muscle strength even in the younger group – the biking brought back muscle mass but to get to their original levels ofstrength, the men had to include weight training in their workouts.

My take: This study presents a rather dramatic “use it or lose it” scenario. With luck, few of us will be completely immobilized for two weeks (or more), but accidents do happen, as do illnesses that can lay you low and keep you there from time to time. It’s worth heeding this study’s message – that to restore your fitness you have to do more than just return to your usual workout, you’ll also have to include strength training (something I regard as an essential part of any exercise program along with aerobic exercise for cardiovascular fitness and stretching for flexibility).


Vegan, Vegetarian Diets For Weight Loss

If you want to lose weight, and you’re willing to give up the traditional American way of eating, a vegan or vegetarian diet may be the way to go. Researchers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a meta-analysis to determine the effects of vegetarian eating on weight. They narrowed down 1,513 studies to the 12 most relevant trials comparing vegan diets or vegetarian plans (including eggs and dairy products) to the average American diet. The 12 trials included data on 1,151 individuals ranging in age from 18 to 82. Some were obese or diabetic. Analysis showed that people on vegetarian diets lost about 4.4 pounds within a year, while those on a vegan diet lost an additional 5.5 pounds during the same time frame. In the studies reviewed, the losses were compared to a control group with no changes in diet. In news reports, Frank Hu of the Harvard School of Public Health, an author of the investigation said that the meta-analysis didn’t compare the weight loss effects of vegan and vegetarian diets to a low carbohydrate, low fat or any other diet strategy, but found that they seemed to out-perform the average American diet. 


Southern Diet Danger

The occasional splurge on fried chicken, or a dinner of liver with gravy with a tall glass of sweet tea probably won’t hurt you. But if your diet includes those and other traditional Southern food favorites as daily fare, your risk of heart disease could increase by 56 percent over the next six years. This news comes from a large study that examined the effects of 5 different diets on heart health, and included 17,000 white and African-American adults (with no known heart problems) age 45 or older. The participants were recruited throughout the United States, but only the traditional Southern diet yielded the negative results. None of the other diets was linked to the risk of heart disease in this study. The researchers, from the University of Alabama, Boston University and Harvard, characterized Southern fare as fried foods, fatty foods, eggs, processed meats, such as bacon and ham, and sugary drinks. They found that the highest consumers of the Southern diet tended to be male, African American, individuals who had not graduated from high school, and among those who lived in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.


Walking For Brain Health 

We know that regular exercise benefits fitness overall and heart health in particular, and now a new study from the University of Kansas suggests that even a little exercise can help improve some thinking skills that wane with age. Researchers recruited 101 healthy seniors 65 or older with no cognitive impairments and tested their aerobic capacity, memory and thinking. They then divided the volunteers into three groups to perform supervised brisk walking on a treadmill in a gym for 75, 150 or 225 minutes a week. Those in a fourth group served as controls and didn’t exercise. After 26 weeks, retesting showed improvements in fitness that varied depending on how much time the participants exercised, but it also showed positive trends in two aspects of cognition - the ability to control their attention and to create visual maps of spaces in their heads.  No differences in thinking were seen between improvements in those who exercised least and those who put in more time. The conclusion: just a little bit of exercise may be all you need to keep your wits about you as you age.

My take: These are interesting findings, but they don’t yet answer the pressing question of how much exercise – if any – can help delay mental decline in processes such as Alzheimer’s disease. Studies are in the works to determine whether physical activity can serves as an effective primary or secondary intervention, but we’re not likely to know the results for years. While keeping the mind healthy is a priority, the small amount of physical activity that proved beneficial for the brain in this study falls short of what you need for fitness and heart health. I recommend that seniors walk briskly for 45 minute a day. In the meantime, as this study suggests, sufficient exercise to boost heart health and general fitness may also help keep your thinking skills intact. 


Diet And Depression

We know that eating a Mediterranean diet can help reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke, and new evidence published this month suggests that it also may protect against depression. Researchers from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria studied more than 15,000 people who were following the recommendations of a Mediterranean-like diet for more than 8 years. None of the participants were depressed when they joined the study, and they were asked to score their adherence to the diets by rating meats and sweets negatively and nuts, fruits and vegetables positively. The researchers reported that the higher the score, the greater the adherence to a healthy diet. Over 8.5 years, 1,550 of the participants reported that they had been diagnosed with depression or had used antidepressant drugs. The researchers concluded that the greatest reduction in the risk of depression was linked to a diet called the “Alternative Healthy Eating Index-2010”, which is similar to the Mediterranean Diet in that in emphasizes foods providing omega-3 fatty acids, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and a moderate alcohol intake. They wrote that even a moderate adherence to the diets was associated with a reduced risk of depression and that there was no additional benefit to high or very high adherence. The researchers said further studies are needed to identify what nutrients are protective, and which might contribute to depression.

My take: This is an interesting study, which supports the view that an anti-inflammatory diet may counter whole body inflammation, a possible contributor to psychological disorders, especially depression. While I don't think that inflammation is the only factor leading to depression, much of the reported rise in the rates of depression may be due to inflammation fostered by increased consumption of highly processed foods, including quick-digesting carbohydrate foods.  An anti-inflammatory diet, which is modeled on the Mediterranean diet with Asian influences, promotes foods that can help control inflammation, as well as the micronutrients and phytonutrients to protect your body (and mind) from inflammation's damaging effects. 


Smaller Servings, Please

You may think this is a no-brainer, but researchers in England have found evidence that if we can eat smaller portions, we can cut calories substantially. Investigators from the University of Cambridge concluded that eliminating the larger-size portions served in many restaurants or eaten at home could result in reducing average daily calorie consumption by 16 percent (279 calories) among adults in the UK, and by 29 percent (527 calories) among adults in the U.S. They reviewed 61 studies that included data on 6,711 participants and found that the effect of trimming portion sizes didn’t vary substantively between men or women or by people’s body mass. These factors also didn’t affect susceptibility to hunger or tendency to consciously control eating behavior. The investigators noted that the incentive to purchase (and then eat or drink) large size portions is simply that these amounts are often perceived to be a better value for the money. Still to be determined is how to actually reduce the size, availability and appeal of large servings. Also at issue: whether short-term reductions in the amount people eat can translate into long-term beneficial changes in consumption.


Smoking And Your Teeth

Smoking increases the risk of heart disease and lung cancer, but even before those potentially deadly diseases develop, regular smokers are more likely to begin losing their teeth. A new study from Britain’s University of Birmingham and the German Institute of Human Nutrition determined that men who smoke are 3.6 times more prone to lose their teeth than non-smokers, while among women smokers the risk is 2.5 times higher. The researchers based their conclusions on data gathered from 23,376 participants in a long-term study in Germany. Part of the problem is that smoking is a strong risk factor in promoting tooth decay and gum disease, both of which can lead to tooth loss. The investigators noted that smoking can mask bleeding gums, a key symptom of gum disease, so that a smoker’s gums may look healthier than they actually are. The good news is that quitting smoking can reverse the increased risk of tooth loss, although the researchers wrote that it could take more than 10 years for the risk to equal that of someone who never smoked. 


How Obesity Raises Breast Cancer Risk

We know that obesity raises the risk of breast cancer in women – it also worsens the outlook when the disease occurs – and recent research from Cornell University might help explain the association. The proposed mechanism is a change in the consistency of breast tissue in ways that can promote malignancy. The study found that obesity seems to prompt a remodeling of fat in the breast, including a thickening of the matrix found between breast cells, and that these changes create conditions that foster tumor growth. The researchers explained that fat tissue in obese women has more wound healing cells than fat tissue in normal weight women.  When these cells, called myofibroblasts, create an extracellular matrix, they pull together as they would to close a wound, with the effect of stiffening the tissue. This process of remodeling appears to open the door for tumors to develop, increasing the risk of cancer. Because these changes don’t show up on mammograms, lead researcher Claudia Fischbach suggested that higher resolution imaging techniques might be needed to detect them. Another practical consideration: use of fat cells from obese patients in plastic or reconstructive surgery following mastectomy in breast cancer patients may create conditions that could lead to another malignancy.