Is Your State a Hotspot for Obesity-Linked Cancers?

What state you call home may have a great deal to do with your chances of developing obesity-related cancer, a new report suggests.

A nearly twofold difference exists between U.S. states with the highest and lowest proportion of obesity-related cancers, American Cancer Society researchers have found.

The highest is in the District of Columbia, at 8 percent, and the lowest in Hawaii, at nearly 6 percent. Being obese or overweight has been tied to 13 types of cancer.

“The proportion of cancers attributable to [excess body weight] varies among states, but [excess body weight] accounts for at least one in 17 of all incident cancers in each state,” the researchers reported.

For the study, a team led by Dr. Farhad Islami calculated the proportion of cancer among obese or overweight people. Islami is the cancer society’s scientific director of surveillance research.

Participants in the study were aged 30 and older between 2011 and 2015, and lived in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia.

Among men, the investigators found a range of cancer attributable to excess weight from nearly 4 percent in Montana to 6 percent in Texas.

For women, the risk of cancers linked to excess weight was about twice as high as in men. It ranged from 7 percent in Hawaii to 11 percent in the District of Columbia, the findings showed.

States in the South and Midwest had the largest proportion of people with weight-related cancers, as well as Alaska and the District of Columbia, the researchers found.

Cancers linked to weight were at different levels across the country. For example, cases of endometrial cancer ranged from about 37 percent in Hawaii to 55 percent in Mississippi, and reached 50 percent or more in 19 states.

“Broad implementation of known community- and individual-level interventions is needed to reduce access to and marketing of unhealthy foods (e.g., through a tax on sugary drinks) and to promote and increase access to healthy foods and physical activity, as well as preventive care,” Islami’s team concluded in a cancer society news release.

The report was published online Dec. 27 in the journal JAMA Oncology.

More information

For more on weight and cancer, visit the American Cancer Society.

Food Brings Double Dose of Pleasure to Your Brain

There may be a powerful reason why you can’t resist that plate of brownies.

It turns out that eating causes the release of dopamine in your brain not once, but twice, German scientists report.

First, the feel-good hormone is unleashed as you eat. But the same thing happens again once that food hits your tummy, they said.

To come to that conclusion, researchers used a newly developed PET scan technique. Scans let them identify when dopamine is released, as well as the areas of the brain linked to dopamine release.

“While the first release occurred in brain regions associated with reward and sensory perception, the post-ingestive release involved additional regions related to higher cognitive functions,” said senior study author Marc Tittgemeyer, from the Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research in Cologne.

For the study, 12 volunteers received either a milkshake or a tasteless solution as PET scan data was recorded.

The researchers found that the desire for the milkshake was linked to the amount of dopamine released in particular brain areas as it was first tasted. But the higher the desire, the less dopamine was released after the milkshake was ingested.

The report was published Dec. 27 in the journal Cell Metabolism.

“On one hand, dopamine release mirrors our subjective desire to consume a food item. On the other hand, our desire seems to suppress gut-induced dopamine release,” said lead author Heiko Backes, group leader for Multimodal Imaging of Brain Metabolism at the Institute.

Backes added that suppression of dopamine being released upon ingestion could cause overeating of desired foods.

“We continue to eat until sufficient dopamine was released,” he said in a journal news release. But this hypothesis needs to be tested in further studies.

More information

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more on healthy eating.

Is Juice on School Menus a Problem?

When given the option, students in school meal programs are more likely to choose fruit juice over more nutritious whole fruit or milk, a new study finds.

“This is a problem because compared to juice, milk and whole fruit are better sources of three nutrients of concern for adolescents — calcium, vitamin D and fiber,” study co-author Marlene Schwartz said in a University of Connecticut news release.

Schwartz is director of the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

The researchers analyzed cafeteria register data from three low-income, Northeast high schools over one school year. When juice was available to students in the National School Lunch program, almost 10 percent fewer milks were chosen and about 7 percent less whole fruit.

The researchers also looked at a la carte sales of beverages, and found that 8 percent fewer bottles of water and 24 percent fewer bottles of 100 percent juice were sold when juice was offered.

“The potential nutritional impact of these substitutions is important to consider,” said lead author Rebecca Boehm.

“For instance, an 8-ounce serving of apple juice has no vitamin D, 285 fewer grams of calcium, and 116 fewer grams of potassium compared to an 8-ounce serving of 1 percent milk,” said Boehm, a postdoctoral fellow at UConn.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children aged 7 to 18 consume no more than 8 ounces of juice a day.

The National School Lunch program reaches over 30 million students. Juice is allowed only on certain days.

The study was published recently in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on nutrition.

Head to the Movies, Museums to Keep Depression at Bay

Movies, the theater, and other cultural events can help you fight the blues as you age.

And the more you go, the less depressed you’ll be, new research suggests.

The British study showed that older folks can cut their depression risk by 32 percent simply by going to cultural activities every few months. And if they go at least once a month, their risk appears to drop by a whopping 48 percent.

The results are based on a decade-long tracking analysis that stacked cultural engagement — plays, movies, concerts and museum exhibits — against depression risk among approximately 2,000 men and women over the age of 50. They were all participants in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) and none had depression at the start of the 10-year study.

The study’s lead author, Daisy Fancourt of University College London, suggested that there are probably many positive “side effects” generated by cultural participation, all of which seem to help tamp down depression risk.

“For example, going to concerts or the theater gets people out of the house,” she said, “which reduces sedentary behaviors and encourages gentle physical activity, which is protective against depression.”

Fancourt added, “It also provides social engagement, reducing social isolation and loneliness. Engaging with the arts is stress-reducing, associated with lower stress hormones such as cortisol, and also lower inflammation, which is itself associated with depression.”

Those points were seconded by Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach with the Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago.

“Being socially or culturally active checks a lot of important boxes that may help reduce depression or cognitive decline,” Fargo noted. “These activities stimulate thinking, they can evoke enjoyable feelings and emotions, and they often provide opportunities for interaction with others — all things that can enhance mental health.”

Cultural engagement can even prompt an uptick in the release of the so-called “feel good” neurotransmitter dopamine, Fancourt added. And taken as a whole, the end result is very likely not only a lower risk for depression but also lower risk for dementia, chronic pain and even premature death.

“So in the same way we have a ‘five-a-day’ [recommendation] for fruit and vegetable consumption, regular engagement in arts and cultural activities could be planned into our lives to support healthy aging,” she advised.

Fancourt is a senior research fellow in the department of behavioral science and health with the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care at University College London.

She and her university colleague Urszula Tymoszuk outlined their findings online recently in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

The ELSA study used interviews and surveys to gauge both depression incidence and the frequency with which study participants attended the theater, concerts, the opera, movies, art galleries and/or museums.

While only an association was seen and not a cause-and-effect link, the results held true regardless of an individual’s age, gender, health, income, educational background, relationships with family and friends, participation in non-arts related social groups, and/or exercise habits (or lack thereof). The results even held apparently for those with a predisposition to depression.

Turhan Canli, an associate psychology professor at Stony Brook University in New York, described the findings as “interesting” and “intuitively appealing.”

“[So] if you enjoy cultural engagement, enjoy,” he said. “If you never tried it, give it a try. If you think you hate it, but actually never tried, try to keep an open mind, perhaps you will surprise yourself.”

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has more on aging and depression.

The Secret Behind Chicken Soup’s Medical Magic

Many people rely on chicken noodle soup to soothe a cold, but few know exactly why the warm broth brings relief.

But one dietitian can explain its magic.

“Studies have shown that a hearty bowl of chicken noodle soup may help clear nasal congestion and ease cold symptoms,” said Sandy Allonen, a clinical dietitian at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. “It’s all about the ingredients.”

When you have a cold, it’s also important to stay hydrated, she added.

“A clear broth is warm and soothing, making it a great source of hydration while you’re sick, especially if you have a sore throat,” Allonen said in a hospital news release.

“You may think added salt and other seasonings aren’t great for you, but in moderation, these spices can help combat the feeling of dull taste buds,” she noted. “A loss of taste is common in a cold, but as with any flavor enhancer, salt is great for getting you to eat more.”

The chicken in your soup offers a number of benefits. It’s high in protein that helps the immune system, and is also a good source of vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins, which boost immunity and help with digestion.

“Chicken is also high in tryptophan, which helps your body produce serotonin that can enhance your mood and give you the feeling of ‘comfort’ that helps make chicken noodle soup a true comfort food,” Allonen said.

The noodles provide carbohydrates that help you feel full and satisfied. “Carbs are the preferred source of energy for your body, so getting in a good dose through soup can help you feel less sluggish,” Allonen said.

Vegetables such as carrots, celery, and onion have vitamins C and K, and other antioxidants and minerals. “Not only does this help build a healthy immune system to fight off viruses, it also helps your body recover from illness more quickly,” Allonen said.

Even the steam from your chicken soup is beneficial.

“Steam can open up airways, making it easier to breathe. It also has a mild anti-inflammatory effect that can help relax your muscles and soothe the discomforts of cold symptoms,” Allonen said.

More information

The American Lung Association has more on the common cold.

Flexibility: A Must at Every Age

Flexibility is a component of all types of movement — from everyday activities to the most rigorous exercises. Being flexible helps you stay mobile and avoid injury.

Yet flexibility training often gets lost in the shuffle or pushed to the bottom of the list after cardio and strength training.

Its goal is to increase your range of motion — how far you can reach when, for instance, you bend from side to side, or raise your arm overhead to grab an item from a high shelf.

Flexibility is best achieved through static stretching, which are stretches you ease into and hold for 10 to 30 seconds while inhaling and exhaling — no bouncing, no holding your breath.

As you start a stretch, focus mentally on the muscles you’re targeting. Extend just to the point of discomfort; you shouldn’t feel any pain.

Here are three moves that target the lower body.

For your hamstrings, sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. Think of your hips as a hinge and, with a straight back, lower your chest toward your thighs until you feel the stretch in the backs of your thighs. Repeat 3 to 5 times.

For your hips, stand up straight, facing a sturdy chair or table in case you need it for support. Raise the heel of your right foot behind you and use your right hand to press it toward your backside without moving your thigh or your hip out of alignment. Repeat 3 to 5 times, then switch legs and repeat.

For your calves, step forward with your right leg. Keep your left heel flat on the ground and press your left hip forward as you redistribute your weight over your right leg. Repeat 3 to 5 times, then switch legs and repeat.

Note: It’s important that muscles are warm before you do static stretches. They’re a great follow-up after every cardio workout, but do at least 2 or 3 focused sessions per week, targeting all muscle groups, and always after a minimum of 10 minutes of light activity.

More information

The American Council on Exercise has more about increasing flexibility, along with other exercises you can do on your own.

Follow the Mediterranean Diet for Weight Loss, Too

When the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines were released, they included details for following the Mediterranean-style diet. That’s the way of eating in countries that border the Mediterranean Sea and has been associated with many health benefits, from a sharper mind to a healthier heart.

The eating plan includes more fruit and seafood and less dairy than traditional healthful diets. And this way of eating is as tasty as it is healthy and easy to follow.

The first guideline of the Mediterranean diet is to eat mostly plant-based foods — a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts. Next, is to replace butter with healthy fats, such as olive oil. Also, use herbs and spices instead of salt, eat fish and poultry at least twice a week, and limit red meat to just a few times a month.

In terms of exact portions, for a daily diet of 1,200 calories, start with 1.5 cups of vegetables and increase from there. Over the course of every week, get a mix of dark green, red and orange veggies for their range of micronutrients, and include some legumes, great sources of fiber and some protein as well as carbs.

Other amounts of daily foods to include are 1 cup of fruit; 4 ounces of grains — at least half of which are whole grain; 2.5 cups of dairy, like nonfat milk or yogurt; 3 ounces of protein such as seafood, poultry, eggs or nuts and seeds; and about 1 tablespoon of oil.

You can adjust these portions depending on your caloric needs and how rapidly you’d like to lose weight. Another great feature of this diet is that it can become a way of life — no need to “go off” it when you reach your desired weight, just increase your portions to maintain it.

More information

Get guidelines for following the Mediterranean diet for caloric intakes between 1,000 and 2,000 calories a day from Health.gov.

Loneliness Doesn’t Take a Holiday

Though this is the time of year when family and friends gather and connect, loneliness remains a serious public health issue in the United States, an expert on aging says.

More and more Americans are lonely, and there’s growing evidence that it can pose significant health risks.

Nearly one-third of older Americans are lonely, and chronic loneliness has been linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, disability, mental decline, depression, early entry into nursing homes, and an increase in doctor’s visits.

“Loneliness is one of the most pressing public health issues facing the country today,” said Kerstin Emerson, a clinical assistant professor of gerontology at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health.

“Recent studies have even suggested that loneliness is a risk factor for early death comparable to smoking or being an alcoholic,” she said in a university news release.

And loneliness isn’t limited to people who live alone.

“People who are socially isolated might be more likely to be lonely, but married people can be lonely as well, as can people who come from very family-oriented or community-oriented cultures,” Emerson said. “Loneliness doesn’t discriminate.”

But it can be difficult to identify people who are lonely.

“Unlike things like diabetes, we can’t just take a blood sample and determine loneliness. The only way we can measure loneliness is to ask. Usually we ask a series of questions that are part of scales to get at loneliness,” Emerson said.

Loneliness can be difficult to treat because its causes and remedies vary from person to person.

“At its heart, loneliness is a personalized issue, and every solution is an individualized solution,” Emerson said. “There are therapies that can help people who need to build social skills. There are services that will help you get from your home to church or your local senior center. Maybe a virtual chat room would meet your needs,” she added.

“During the holiday season, we often get wrapped up in ourselves and our own family’s needs, but thinking about others who may need just a little bit more interaction — a phone call, a quick hello to a neighbor — is a big help,” Emerson said.

Things you can do to help reduce loneliness in your community include: signing older adults up for classes on how to use social media, or teach them yourself; offering older relatives or neighbors regular rides to church, the gym or community senior centers; and volunteering with Meals on Wheels or other groups.

More information

The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more on loneliness.

How to Handle Holiday Stressors

While others are decking the halls, many people find the holidays trigger anxiety and depression.

Stress can arise from financial strain, dealing with difficult relatives or trying to create the perfect holiday, said Michelle Martel, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky.

Also, the holidays can bring up sad memories for people who have lost loved ones, she noted in a university news release.

But there are things you can do to reduce the risk of stress and mood problems during the holidays, Martel said. For starters, she suggested the following:

  • Get as much sunlight as possible. Reduced exposure to light and less vitamin D from sunlight have been linked with depression. If you can’t get outside, consider using a sun therapy light. Be sure you get enough vitamin D in your diet or take a multivitamin.
  • Get plenty of exercise. If you can’t get outdoors, try a gym or walk the halls at work or at a mall. Exercise benefits both mind and body.
  • Plan stress-free family time. For example, get dinner delivered and don’t feel obliged to go to every holiday get-together put on by family and friends.

If family time is stressful or you don’t have family to spend time with, make plans with friends or try to get away for the holidays, Martel suggested.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, get help, she advised.

“Planning ahead for addressing stress is definitely key. Sometimes the best gift you can give your family is taking care of yourself,” Martel said.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers holiday health and safety tips.

Building the Bonds of Friendship

It’s well known that having friends plays a big part in our emotional and physical well-being. And while friendships make life more rewarding at every age, we’re now learning that as we get older, quality becomes more important than quantity.

But friendships are harder to make as we age, so it’s important to build on the ones you have.

Research has found that having lots of friends when you’re in your 20s is valuable — think of these friendships as sowing platonic wild oats. But then in your 30s, it’s time to cull that number and strengthen the friendships you want to keep. The quality of your friendships is what leads to stronger emotional wellness in the decades ahead.

Make the time to deepen these relationships. For fun, you might form a walking group with your buddies so you can get healthy at the same time. But all kinds of get-togethers reinforce your bonds.

Above all, be the kind of friend you would like to have — be a good listener, offer support without being judgmental and forgive when misunderstandings occur.

The Mayo Clinic suggests these ways to nurture friendships:

  • Show kindness — remember the old adage of treating others as you want to be treated.
  • Listen intently — people appreciate feeling as though you’re taking their thoughts and concerns seriously.
  • Spend real time, not just virtual visits, with friends.

Keep in mind that it’s never too late to rekindle friendships from your youth — consider reconnecting with old classmates through your high school or college alumni association. And though it’s more challenging to make friends later in life, it’s never too late. Becoming active in your community, such as through volunteering, is one way to meet new people.

More information

The Mayo Clinic has more information on the importance of friendships and how to enhance them throughout your life.