HEALTHCARE
January 2, 2013

A Good Year for Good Health

New years are for fresh starts and self improvement. Here are some findings to take with you into 2013.

As you make and try to keep your resolutions for 2013, you will be helped if you keep in mind the advances made in medicine and health in 2012. The year gave us a new appreciation for ways to cut health care costs. It fine-tuned our understanding of just what is — and isn't — low fat. It introduced walnuts as fertility food and gave the green light to sex after a heart attack.

Here are more of the most useful research findings of 2012 to carry with you to improve your health and well being in the New Year.

Give Sleep a Chance

Sleep is one of your health's best friends. Most of us get too little of it. When the schedules we keep are fundamentally out of sync with our internal clocks, we begin to suffer from social jet lag. Our body's internal clock, along with the sun's movements, cues us to wake and sleep at certain times of the day. By staying up late, spending more time in darkness, we delay our bodies' clocks. Lack of sleep also increases insulin sensitivity, leading to weight gain and diabetes.

Surfing the internet before bedtime disrupts the body's clock and can lead to sleep disturbances and potentially more serious complications.

Technology is sleep's enemy in our 24/7 world. WiFi has made it easy to use your laptop or tablet in bed (is that where you are now?). But studies have found that melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland at night and in the dark which helps set the body's biological clock, is reduced by 22% in those who spend a couple of hours surfing the internet before turning off the light. This disrupts the body's clock and can lead to sleep disturbances, disruptions of mood and even interfere with vaccines' effectiveness. If the disruptions continue for long periods of time, the complications can be more serious. Don't rob yourself of sleep.

Sometimes You Need to Leave Your Car at Home

Long commutes are associated with overall poorer health. So while it's not proven that commuting causes any health problems directly, the stress of driving in traffic and sitting too long in your car mean that people who spend hours driving to and from work are more at risk. Even people who are very active but had long commutes tended to have larger than average waistlines and higher blood pressure.

Leave your car keys behind and walk for certain errands. Buy a pedometer.

If you are driving you aren't moving. Being active is one of the most basic keys to health, and it doesn't take much to reap the benefits. Leave your car keys behind a few times a month and walk to the store, or to pick up your kids. Use a pedometer to track your progress.

Not All Healthcare Improvements are Expensive

Healthcare costs were on everyone's mind in 2012, and much of the news was not good for aging baby boomers. But there was still some good news about how health care and healthcare costs can be improved. Some of the best ways are free, or at least not expensive.

Take losing weight. Simply keeping the obesity rate where it is would lower healthcare costs by $550 billion over the next 20 years, according to a public health study. The steps researchers identified to help realize these savings are likely to be familiar: make physical activity part of your everyday life, offer better nutrition education in schools, and involve insurers, employers, and healthcare professionals in obesity prevention.

Older, experienced doctors, we learned, are a surprising “bargain” because young doctors cost patients more than experienced physicians. The “cost profiles” of doctors with less than 10 years of experience was 13% higher than doctors with over 40 years of experience.

Simply keeping the obesity rate where it is would lower healthcare costs by $550 billion over the next 20 years.

So much of healthcare relies on the quality of doctor-patient communication. Several studies looked at the problems patients have talking to their doctors and the ways to improve the very important discussion of diagnosis and treatment options. A new idea — giving patients access to their doctor's notes — looks like an inexpensive way to improve communication and probably care (research has yet to determine this). Doctors who tried the new system were happily surprised to find that their work load did not increase as much as they feared, and, according to reseachers, “few patients reported being confused, worried or offended by what they read.”

Be Humble and Kind

Several studies made it clear that good people do better in many facets of life.

First, a British study found that the most skilled workers are not in CEOs' offices; they are generally a rung down the ladder. Top performers are not special, just lucky. The message, said researchers, is that we should stop idolizing those at the very top. They are rarely any better than those in the tier just below.

Cultivating kindness and humility are good for your brain as well.

This operates at a personal level, too. Researchers found that when you need help it pays to look to your humbler friends. People who were more humble were most likely to help others, even when there was little external social pressure to do so. The benefit may be related to another finding in 2012: feeling respected and valued is a key aspect of well-being.

Cultivating kindness and humility are good for your brain as well. Much of what we know about the brain has come from looking at changes that harm the brain, such as the bad effects of repeated exposure to stress in early life. But new research this year also found that you can improve your brain by positive ways of thinking.

Patients with chronic fatigue syndrome who received cognitive behavioral therapy showed enlargement in their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain related to motivation, happiness and other emotions. Studies of people who practice Zen meditation have found they have an increased tolerance to pain, a change that positively enhances another region of the cortex.

Eat Smarter

We all pretty much know what eating well is — more fruits and vegetables and less sugar and fat. But every year those basic guidelines are refined by more research, and we end up a little savvier about what we eat. This was the year we learned just what kind of caloric punch low-fat items like muffins pack. There is no free lunch. It pays to know what's in our food rather than relying on marketing.

The year also saw researchers refining just what it takes to diet successfully. They homed in on three behaviors found to increase weight loss: keeping a food diary, eating out less, and not skipping meals.

Every year those basic guidelines are refined by more research, and we end up a little savvier about eating.

And a few true food villains emerged. New York's Mayor Bloomberg has it right: cut back on or avoid products with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Despite what the beverage industry says, it is one of the easiest ways to lose weight.

HFCS has been linked to diabetes. As one researcher puts it, “people everywhere have an almost insatiable appetite for sweet foods, but regrettably our metabolism has not evolved sufficiently to be able to process the fructose from high fructose corn syrup in the quantities that some people are consuming it.” As this is being written, new research in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that unlike glucose, which signals the hunger centers in the brain that we are full, fructose leaves the brain craving more food, a possible explanation for why sodas and other HFCS-laden foods have been linked to obesity.

Finally, as so many of us ponder how to eat better and lose the weight we continue to put on each year, click here for ten tips to make good nutrition even easier.

What You Don't Know (and What You Can't See) Can Hurt You

Ignorance is one of the biggest diet problems, and as we learn more it can be difficult to stay abreast of developments. Who knew that low-fat muffins are anything but low calorie, and that some low-cal salad dressings prevent the absorption of veggies' nutrients? It becomes more and more important to read food labels and keep an eye on sites like TheDoctor. Learn to dig deeper. A cereal that contains dried fruit may seem like it contains an exceptionally high amount of sugar, but much of that may naturally occur in the dried fruit and not necessarily be added sugar.

These chemicals stay in your body a long time, even after exposures have ended.

Our awareness of just how much toxic chemicals affect health across generations also deepened in 2012. The residues left by airborne molecules from pesticides or manufacturing or components of plastics, though rarely found in amounts that can be seen or tasted, exert a subtle, disrupting influence on our bodies’ hormones and can have serious consequences. Leukemia, brain tumors, behavioral problems, birth defects, low birth weight and other acute and chronic problems are among the possible short- and long-term consequences of childhood exposure to these hormone disruptors.

Even products meant to protect you, such as fire retardant fabrics, contain chemicals that can change the way your body's hormones operate, causing birth defects and affecting behavior, fertility and cell metabolism. These chemicals stay in your body a long time, even after exposures have ended. If you’re pregnant, they can be dangerous for the fetus. And if you’re nursing, they are often found in breast milk.

Curb Screen Time. Read a Book

Reading a good book can literally change who you are (pun intended), a process researchers call, “experience taking.” More than just understanding a character, we take a little of them inside ourselves and change our beliefs and views in the process.

Yes, we know many people now read books on tablets, but try it the old-fashioned way: it might help you sleep better (see Give Sleep a Chance above).

Parents may feel allowing young children to watch “educational” DVDs is OK and even helps kids learn, giving them an advantage when they start school. But child development experts – and the research – say differently.

Add just one healthy behavior to your life this year and you will see benefits. Add more than one and you deserve to feel proud of yourself. But don't forget to be humble and kind.

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