Trying to stay on top of health- and wellness-related news and events can be overwhelming. It’s a lot to digest (pun intended). We saved you the trouble. Here’s what happened in December 2019 + January 2020, WellBe-style.
1. Your Environment and Your Brain: Air Pollution, Hearing Loss, and Inflammation all Affect Cognitive Decline
What: Three new studies show surprising ways in which the environment can have an impact on brain function: in one, researchers found a link between air pollution and Alzeheimer’s-like symptoms; in another, mild hearing loss was linked with cognitive decline; and in the last, inflammation was tied to brain fog.
The Details: In the air pollution study, published in the journal Brain, researchers at the University of Southern California looked at five years’ worth of brain scans from almost 1,000 women in their 70s and 80s. They compared these images to those of people with Alzheimer’s, while also looking at where each participant lived and gathering environmental data from each area. Specifically, they looked at the number of PM2.5 particles (aka fine particles), which come from traffic exhaust, smoke, and dust, and can remain airborne for long periods of time and eventually find their way into our bodies and brains. The results showed that high fine particle measurements were associated with brain atrophy and memory decline, even when adjusting for other factors.
Another study, published in JAMA, researchers looked at 6,451 people aged 50 or older, examining the relationship between hearing loss and cognitive decline. They found that any degree of hearing loss can take a mental toll — and, perhaps most surprisingly, the biggest drop in cognitive ability occured at the most minimal level of hearing loss (meaning that the quietest sound a person can hear changes from a pin dropping to the sound of a whisper).
Lastly, researchers at the University of Birmingham in the UK found that inflammation appears to have a particular negative impact on the brain’s ability to become and remain alert. In the study, they gave a group of 20 young male volunteers a salmonella typhoid vaccine, which causes temporary inflammation but few other side effects. Afterward, they took cognitive tests on a computer while their brain activity was measured. On a different day, they received a placebo injection and underwent the same tests. The results showed that inflammation had a negative impact on cognitive performance and specifically affected brain activity related to staying alert.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? Unfortunately, all three of these issues are biggies that nobody can really ignore. For one, fine particle matter is the sixth leading risk factor for premature death globally. Meanwhile, noise pollution is everywhere (just take a look around next time you’re out in the world — how many people do you see who don’t have earbuds blaring music directly into their eardrums?), and this new research shows that even the slightest level of hearing loss can have major impacts on brain function. And, as we see all too well in our work, inflammation is everywhere (and, no surprise here, so is brain fog!).
The WellBe Takeaway: Despite all the above, we see signs of hope in all these studies, because each of them give us clues into how the brain works and what we can do to protect ours. We can start with improving the air quality in our own environments, and protecting our hearing at an earlier age (and making sure to protect our little ones’ hearing as well!). This means opting for noise-cancelling headphones so that we can lower the volume level on what we’re listening to, and avoiding loud environments as much as possible. In terms of inflammation-causing brain fog, we’re banking that as just another reason to prevent chronic inflammation however we can.
What: A new study shows that one of the most commonly prescribed steroids can increase risk factors for type 2 diabetes in just one week.
The Details: The research, presented late last year at the Society for Endocrinology Annual Conference, is the latest in a number of studies linking the steroid class glucocorticoids (GCs) to weight gain and type 2 diabetes. But this study is particularly striking because it showed an increase in diabetes risk after just one week of treatment.
In the study, researchers divided 16 healthy male participants between the ages of 30 and 50 into two groups, and gave each group a different dosage of the steroid. Seven days later, both groups had worsened insulin sensitivity, which is the main risk factor for type 2 diabetes.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? GCs are a class of steroid hormones that are used to treat a whole host of inflammation-related issues, from arthritis to asthma to colitis and beyond. This makes them one of the most prescribed drugs worldwide: over 600,000 patients in the U.K and over 2.5 million patients in the U.S. have been exposed to the medication. Yikes.
That means that even if you’re not taking a GC, chances are someone in your life is — or a doctor might suggest one in the near future. With prescriptions given out as freely as business cards at a networking conference, it’s highly likely that this steroid class will make its way into your world sooner or later. This study is a reminder to steer clear when it does.
The WellBe Takeaway: While this study is small and more research needs to be done to confirm the findings, we’re still taking it as another piece of evidence that pharmaceuticals can often cause just as many problems as they solve. We’re going to continue to be diligent about what we put into our bodies, making sure that we research any side effects and confirm that medications are 100% necessary before taking them; oftentimes, lifestyle changes can be a much more sustainable and less risky cure for what ails you.
What: A large analysis found a link between hair dyes and hair straighteners and breast cancer, with the connection even stronger for African-American women.
The Details: The study, published in The International Journal of Cancer, looked at data from an ongoing study called the Sister Study. Researchers analyzed medical and lifestyle records from 46,709 women between the ages of 35 and 74, 9% of whom were African American.
After looking at the data, they found that women who used permanent hair dye or chemical straighteners had a heightened risk of developing breast cancer, with the association significantly higher for black women. To put a number to that, after eight years of follow-up there was a 7% higher risk of breast cancer among white women using permanent hair dye, while among black women using permanent hair dye, the risk was 45% higher. This risk increased according to the frequency with which women dyed their hair.
The racial variation went away for chemical straighteners, with both black and white women who used these products experiencing a 30% increased risk of breast cancer. Of course, it’s worth pointing out that black women are more likely to use chemical straighteners, with 75% of black women in the study reporting straightening their hair.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? Given that one in eight women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer, this should be of concern to all of us. It’s also a reminder of the fact that hair products contain more than 5,000 chemicals, including many with mutagenic (aka changing your DNA) and endocrine-disrupting properties, which can not only raise cancer risk but also lead to other serious side effects. In other words, anyone who goes to a salon has reason to be freaked out by this research.
The WellBe Takeaway: As we talked about in our guide to organic salons, it’s so important to protect yourself when you head to the hair salon (or use products at home). We’re going to revisit that guide to get reacquainted with the risk factors present at the salon, and arm ourselves with nontoxic products and helpful strategies to stay safe — and looking fresh 🙂
4. Regulation Roundup: News from the FDA, FCC & EPA, Plus Developments in New York and California
What: Lots can happen in two months! In December and January, an advisory panel voted that the FDA expand approved usage of a fish-oil derived drug, the FCC declined to adjust radiation safety guidelines ahead of the 5G rollout, the EPA’s scientific advisory board (that he appointed!) condemned policies from the Trump administration, New York became the third state to ban chlorpyrifos, and California debates labeling acetaminophen (Tylenol) as a carcinogen.
Then there’s the FCC (and a bit of FDA again): The Federal Communications Commission has decided not to make changes to federal safety limits for cellphone-radiation exposure amid nationwide rollouts of 5G wireless networks. They say they found no basis for changing current exposure limits, and cited as evidence the FDA’s comments that no scientific evidence had conclusively linked cell phones to health problems. The FDA, in turn, reviewed both medical devices and cellphones and consulted a range of peer-reviewed studies and public health data to come to that position.
And let’s add in the EPA for good measure: the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board, which is tasked with evaluating the scientific merit of the agency’s regulations, posted letters online sharply criticizing many of the Trump administration’s environmental policy decisions. This is particularly striking given that many of the 41 scientists on the board were hand-selected by the Trump administration. The letters specifically called out the rollbacks of an Obama-era regulation of waterways and an Obama-era effort to curb tailpipe emissions that contribute to climate change, as well as a plan to limit the scientific data that can be used to draft health regulations. In their criticisms, they noted that scientific evidence was not on the side of any of these decisions, and that many of them flagrantly ignored strongly established science.
And over on the other side of the country, we have California, where regulators are considering labeling acetaminophen as a carcinogen. You’re probably most familiar with acetaminophen in the form of Tylenol, but it’s also in things like Exedrin and Sudafed and more than 600 prescription and OTC medications; it’s also been available without a prescription since 1955. State regulators reviewed 133 studies about the drug, some of which reported an increase in cancer risk and some of which didn’t. Driving this debate is a California law called Proposition 65 requires the state to warn people of any chemical that causes cancer or reproductive toxicity. The list currently has about 900 chemicals, and the debate is whether or not acetaminophen should be among them. The International Agency for Research on Cancer declined to list it as a carcinogen after reviews in 1990 and 1999 (but hey, that was over 20 years ago). There will be a vote on whether to add it to the list this spring.
In terms of the FCC ruling about 5G radiation, we should all be keeping an eye on this, as all of the major carriers are racing to roll out 5G nationwide, and the verdict still isn’t in on the link between cellphone radiation and human health. The National Toxicology Program found in a study that lab rats and mice exposed to 2G and 3G cell phones developed cancerous heart tumors, but officials have deemed there isn’t strong evidence linking the technology to humans. Color us skeptical.
As far as the EPA panel’s judgments on Trump’s regulatory rollbacks, what happens in our environment has a major impact on our health (see 5G, above, for one example). The more the law protects the environment, the more it protects us. And the less it protects the environment, the more we have to be our own defenders.
And with the New York ban of chlorpyrifos and the California debate over acetaminophen, both matter because they show the power of more local officials to make changes that protect constituents. If you live in New York (or Hawaii or California), you and your children are now safer because a pesticide that can cause irreversible neurological damage is banned. If you don’t live in one of those states, you have some examples of what can be done, and motivation to contact your representation. And in California, Proposition 65 continues to offer powerful ways for you to stay educated (and protected) as a consumer.
The WellBe Takeaway: There’s a LOT happening in the news every day, believe us, we know. That means it can be tough to stay on top of the more mundane-seeming things, like regulations. But as all of the above hopefully made clear, these regulations can actually have an enormous impact on the health of you and your loved ones, so we’re taking away the fact that we need to stay connected to health and environmental policy decisions, even when flashy headlines try to distract us. Let your voice be heard!
5. Kid Nutrition: Toddlers Eating Too Much Added Sugar + Whole Milk May Prevent Obesity
What: A new report found that nearly all toddlers and two-thirds of infants consume added sugar, despite recommendations not to. Meanwhile, a review of studies found that whole milk might be healthier than low-fat or skim milk for children’s weight.
The Details: Looking at data from the CDC, researchers found that a shocking 98% of toddlers ages 12-23 months consumed added sugar in foods like baked goods, candy, cereal, and drinks. The amount of added sugar consumed ranged from 3.7 to 8 teaspoons per day. They also found that 60% of infants up to 11 months old consumed added sugar in yogurt, baby snacks, and flavored milk (about 1 teaspoon of added sugar a day). Added sugar includes any sweetener that doesn’t occur naturally in a food (this can be anything from cane sugar to high-fructose corn syrup to honey).
In the milk study, Canadian researchers analyzed 14 studies that included 20,897 children and compared those who drank whole milk (3.25% fat) with those who drank milk containing less than 2% fat. Their results found that children who drank whole milk had a 39% reduced risk for being overweight or obese as compared to those who drank low-fat or skim milk, and the more whole milk they drank, the more their risk fell.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: too much sugar is harmful. And for the delicate and developing bodies of little ones, this is even more true. The American Heart Association and nutritionists advise that toddlers and infants completely avoid sugar-sweetened drinks, while the American Cancer Society recommends that adults limit their added sugar to 10 teaspoons per day (which is downright terrifying when you think that some toddlers were eating 8 per day). Sugar is associated with weight gain, which has its own attendant issues, as well as cancer; in teenagers, it’s linked to cavities, asthma, obesity, and high blood pressure. What’s more, eating sugar as a young child can set a baby up for a lifetime of issues, as early sugar exposure can impact taste preferences for a lifetime.
As far as the milk goes, we’re not too sure what this means yet, and the study’s author asserts that more trials are needed to confirm the results. However, it does raise questions about the authority of generally accepted guidelines (the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends switching to skim or low-fat milk at age 2), and brings to light some potential benefits of full-fat milk. For one thing, some studies suggest it can make people feel full for longer!
The WellBe Takeaway: We’re pretty sure that none of these parents want to be giving their babies harmful foods. Both of these pieces of news just drive home how tough it can be to know what to eat, and to avoid unwanted ingredients. In particular, we’re struck once again at how insidious added sugar is — it’s practically everywhere! All the more reason to investigate government guidelines on our own and to keep reading ingredient labels, both for ourselves and for our loved ones (and to read extra carefully if those loved ones are little). As for the whole milk study, we stress the importance of whole foods at WellBe a lot, and this study confirms our stance: nature is smarter than we are. The chemical makeup of whole food in its natural form is the way it is for a reason. When we extract and manipulate that makeup, our bodies react in strange ways, causing unintended chronic health issues.
6. Exercises Reduces Genetic Risk of Depression and Keeps Your Muscles Young
What: A large-scale study found that people who exercised a few times a week are less likely to develop clinical depression than sedentary people, even if they had an elevated risk for depression; in other exercise news, a study found that the muscles of older men who exercised regularly resembled the muscles of 25-year-olds and seemed to weather inflammatory damage better than those of sedentary people of the same age.
The Details: Researchers at institutions including Harvard University analyzed the records of almost 8,000 participants who had filled out questionnaires about their exercise habits, including information on how much they exercised per week and what types of exercise they did. Researchers also examined DNA to look for genetic variations that increase risk of depression, as well as medical records to look for diagnoses of depression.
The findings were clear: those who were physically active had less risk for depression than those who rarely moved, regardless of the type of exercise. And what’s the magic number for being physically active? According to this study, it’s three: if a person spent at least three hours per week exercising, they were less likely to become depressed, and with each additional 30 minutes of activity, the risk fell another 17 percent. This reduced risk was true for those who had reported depression in the past, as well as for those whose DNA predisposed them to depression. In fact, for someone who carried gene snippets linked to an increased risk of depression, exercise effectively neutralized the genetic predisposition. Boom.
In the other study, Ball State scientists recruited 21 elderly men (in their 70s or 80s) who had been training continuously since the 1970s, along with 10 runners and cyclists in their 20s and another 10 elderly men who lived sedentary lifestyles. They measured all of the men’s thighs as a marker of muscle mass, and took blood and muscle-tissue samples, then had all participants complete a brief lower-body weight training session. Afterward, they checked their tissue for inflammatory markers.
What they found was that while the young athletes displayed the least amount of inflammation and recovered the quickest, the elderly athletes had only slightly more inflammation and slightly slower recovery time. Meanwhile, the untrained elderly men had major inflammation spikes. When taken in consideration with the fact that the active elderly men’s muscle tissue more closely resembled the young athletes than the sedentary elderly men, the findings suggest that exercise helps ward off signs of aging by helping muscles dissipate inflammation.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? Depression is one of the world’s most common mental disorders, affecting 300 million people worldwide, and genetics play a large role in our susceptibility to the condition. That means that this first study offers an exciting beacon of hope for everyone, as it shows the power of lifestyle to prevail over genetics to keep you healthy. And even if you don’t have a genetic predisposition for depression, it’s sadly common to experience depressive episodes or periods of life, and this study reminds all of us that we have a wonderful preventative and healing option at our fingertips (or downstairs at the gym, or right in your bedroom with jumping jacks — you get it, it’s everywhere!).
The study of older adults drives home the fact that the way you treat your body today will remain with you and inform your health for the rest of your life. It also raises some concerns about waiting until middle age or later in life to start exercising, as muscles will have already suffered a lot of the wear and tear of inflammation at that point.
The WellBe Takeaway: Yes, we’re beating a dead horse with this one. This topic comes up in a lot of our wrap-ups (remember that study from the last wrap-up showing that exercise can reduce Alzehimer’s risk? Or the one from last year that said not exercising is worse for you than smoking??) and time and time again we’re reminded of yet another reason to get out of bed and get moving, even if it’s just a brisk walk. Any movement is better than none!
7. Drinking Three Cups of Tea A Week May Improve Heart Health
What: According to a new study out of China, drinking three or more cups of tea per week is associated with a reduced risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular events.
The Details: In the study, Chinese scientists looked at data from an ongoing health study conducted in 15 provinces since 1998, which included health and behavioral information on 100,109 adults. The information included self-reported tea consumption, as well as instances of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular events, as well as death from cardiovascular disease and other causes.
Researchers found that compared with those who drank two or fewer cups of tea per week, those who drank three or more had a 22% reduced risk for a cardiovascular incident, a 22% reduced risk for cardiovascular death, and a 15% reduced risk for premature death overall. The study controlled for a ton of other factors, including education, smoking, alcohol consumption, blood pressure, and BMI.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. Full stop. That means it matters for all of us, even if you’re not in a high-risk group, and chances are you know and love someone who is in a high risk group. It also matters because tea offers an option to reduce the risk of heart disease that avoids pharmaceuticals, is totally risk-free, and tastes delicious!
Researchers aren’t totally sure what the relationship here is, and cause-and-effect hasn’t been proven, but we do know that tea — in particular green tea — contains flavonoids, which can reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, increase the efficiency of heart muscle cells, and improve the function of blood vessels.