The WellBe Health News Wrap-up: October + November 2019

All the health and wellness news and health research you need to know from October + November 2019.
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 October + November 2019, WellBe-style.

1. Toxic Water: Lead in Canadian Water and EPA Rollbacks of Water Protections

What: The Trump administration has rolled back regulations that protect water sources from coal plants, while a new report reveals high levels of lead in Canadian drinking water.
The Details: Early in November, the EPA announced that it would be reversing Obama-era regulations on how coal plants dispose of toxic waste. The rules they reversed had to do with coal ash, which is the residue left over from burning coal that is full of lead, mercury, and arsenic. Before, coal plants had to invest in wastewater treatment technology and monitor coal ash ponds, measures which were estimated to prevent 1.4 billion pounds of coal ash from entering rivers and streams. Now, with the regulations gone, coal plants can dispose of coal ash as they see fit, leaving it sitting in large, open ponds (which could easily overflow) for years.
Meanwhile, in Canada, an investigation revealed that hundreds of thousands of people were drinking and cooking with water that contained high levels of lead, some at even higher levels than Flint, Michigan. The yearlong investigation collected water test results in 11 cities across Canada, and found that out of 12,000 tests in the past five years, 33% exceeded the Canadian national safety guidelines for lead of 5 parts per billion, and 18% exceeded the U.S. guidelines of 15 ppb. Also why are our safety guidelines less safe than Canada’s? We’re not exactly surprised.
This might seem shocking for those of us who think of Canada as a cleaner, safer place, but it makes sense when you consider the fact that there’s no Canadian national mandate to test drinking water for lead. And even when tests do occur, there’s no requirement to disclose the results to residents. The lack of federal oversight means that provinces can do what they want when it comes to drinking water, and unfortunately, many of them have chosen to ignore the serious health issues associated with lead-contaminated water.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? According a former EPA official, rolling back these regulations means that coal plants could discharge over 1 billion pounds of pollutants every year into 4,000 miles of rivers, contaminating the drinking water and fisheries of 2.7 million people. And these pollutants are highly dangerous: ten years after coal ash spilled near Kingston, Tennessee, more than 200 workers who helped clean up the spill sued, arguing that the exposure led to brain, lung, and skin cancer, among other ailments.
For Canadians, the health risks are equally stark. Lead exposure can lead to a whole host of issues, specifically for children, in whom it can decrease IQ and the ability to pay attention, as well as damage the brain and kidneys. This is particularly frightening, considering that the investigation included high levels of lead in many schools and daycares.
The WellBe Takeaway: Both of these pieces of news are pretty frightening, and might be disheartening since there’s not a lot you can do about either. Thankfully, though, you can do something to effectively protect yourself and your loved ones: buy a water filter. Use our guide to find the correct water filter for your area, and you can feel confident that you’re keeping yourself safe, no matter what the regulations are where you live.

2. Baby Health Roundup: Oxytocin + Mothers’ Behavior; Link Between C-Sections and Autism; Toxic Metals in Baby Food; and New Research on Screen Time

What: There’s been a ton of baby-related research in the past couple months, including: a possible connection between C-sections and autism; a startling report on toxic metals in baby food; a study on how the way a mother plays with her babies impacts the baby’s oxytocin levels; and a study linking screen time with reduced language skills in toddlers.
The Details: That’s a lot to process, so let’s go through these one by one.
First up, cesareans and autism. In this meta-analysis, published in JAMA, researchers looked at data from 61 studies (which included more than 20 million deliveries) and found that children born via C-section had a 33% higher risk of autism and a 17% higher risk of ADD. It’s worth noting, first off, that these were observational studies, and that correlation does not mean causation — ie, there could be other factors that led to the C-section babies developing these issues later in life. But there are potential reasons why a C-section would set a baby up for future health issues, and most of those reasons have to do with the gut microbiome. See, babies who are born vaginally get a wide range of bacterial fauna from their mother during the labor process. And as we know, gut health is essential to basically every aspect of overall well-being, so it makes sense that missing out on this good bacteria could have serious repercussions.
Regardless of how a baby is born, she’ll need to be fed — and, unfortunately, new health risks await there. Specifically, a new investigation that included 168 kinds of baby food from 61 brands found that 95% contained heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury. One in four of the foods tested contained all of these metals, while 40% contained three of them. Of all 168, 73% contained arsenic, 94% contained lead, 75% contained cadmium, and 32% contained mercury. Rice cereal and rice-based snacks had the highest risk of containing the toxic metals. Though the quantities were small, the report notes that even trace amounts of these metals can alter developing brains and “erode a child’s IQ.”
Okay, so once a baby is born and fed, it’s play time! Turns out, the way play happens can impact health as well. In a new study, scientists observed mothers playing with their five-month-old babies, and collected saliva samples from mother and baby both at the initial play session and 18 months later. They found that the infants’ DNA had changed from the first test to the second, and specifically that babies whose mothers were more involved while playing had a better functioning oxytocin system. This is a big deal, because oxytocin is the hormone that helps in building trust and developing close relationships. Babies with more involved moms were also less temperamental and more easygoing.
Phew — so birth itself, feeding, and playing can all have serious impact on a baby’s health. Once all that’s taken care of, a hardworking mom deserves to give their little one the iPad so she can take a load off, right? Um…sorry, no. A new study in JAMA Pediatric found that screen time can negatively impact toddler brain development, specifically when it comes to language development. The study compared screen time with brain scans of 47 healthy, upper- to middle-class children ages 3-5. The children’s parents were asked about their child’s screen use, and researchers used their answers to give each child a “ScreenQ” score: a score of 0 meant perfect adherence to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ screen guidelines, while a score of 26 meant complete non-adherence (the child starting watching screens in the first year, screens in the bedroom, lots of screen time, etc). Researchers then compared these scores with brain scans, and found that kids with higher ScreenQ scores had lower levels of myelination (also known as white matter), especially in brain areas related to language and literacy skills; this matters because myelination is what determines the effectiveness and efficiency of nerve cells in the brain, and certain developmental milestones are only met when certain areas of the brain are properly myelinated. Children with more screen time also performed worse on tests of language processing speed.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? Each of the items above matters for its own reasons: the C-section news underscores how important a mother’s gut bacteria is in a child’s long-term health; the baby food report reminds us that breastfeeding and making your own baby food is the best way to go, and when you can’t, to only get food from trusted sources, especially when it comes to feeding those who are more susceptible to potential toxins; the oxytocin study reminds us that well-being goes far beyond merely the physical, and that relationships and bonding are crucial for a human to thrive; and the study on screens says quite a lot about how this relatively new technology could be affecting all of us far more than we may know.
The WellBe Takeaway: There are a lot of takeaways in all of the above, and it only adds to the enormous amount of information that new and expecting parents must sift through when trying to raise a healthy, happy child. It can be incredibly overwhelming! So we’re trying to distill it all down into a simple, one-sentence summary of our approach: When it comes to having a baby, what nature made is always the best way to go, find people and sources you trust, be an active participant in your child’s life, and always lead with love.

3. Optimism Improves Heart Health — What Great News!

What: A large meta-study suggests that optimistic people have a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and early death.
The Details: When you hear or think something positive, you might say that it “warms your heart” — but turns out, optimistic thinking might be doing a lot more for your heart as well. A new meta-analysis, published in JAMA Network Open, looked at 15 studies that measured optimism and pessimism, along with 10 studies that looked at heart disease and 9 that looked at overall mortality, and found some pretty significant results.
First, of the 209,436 people in the heart disease study, those with an optimistic outlook had a 35% lower risk for cardiovascular events. On top of that, when it comes to the 188,599 subjects in the all-cause mortality studies, optimists had a 14% lower risk for premature death than pessimists. Both groups of studies controlled for a wide range of health and behavioral factors, and included a follow-up 14 years later.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? According to the lead author of the study, optimists have better health outcomes for a couple reasons: people who think positively are more likely to exercise, eat well, and take care of themselves; and an optimistic outlook also has direct biological effects on the body, including less inflammation and fewer metabolic abnormalities. Other studies have shown optimism associated with a number of other good health outcomes, as well as greater success in work, school, and relationships.
The WellBe Takeaway: This is great news that motivates us to look for more great news! Not only is being optimistic a better way to go through the world, we now have hard evidence that it’s actually really important for your health. So we’re going to take this info and try to apply it to our day to day life, even when things get hard or the world is frustrating (remember, that 40-minute subway delay is the perfect excuse for a nice walk! And those dishes in the sink are evidence you’ve got food to eat. There’s always a bright side if you look for it!).

4. Physical Causes of Mental Issues: Hysterectomies Tied to Anxiety & Depression, and Sleep Apnea to Mood Disorders

What: A new study suggests that sleep apnea may increase the risk for mood disorders like depression, anxiety or bipolar, while another shows that hysterectomies may be associated with a greater instance of anxiety and depression.
The Details: The sleep apnea study looked at about 1,000 Korean adults, 20% of whom had been diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea (O.S.A.), which is a sleep-related breathing disorder. None of the participants had been diagnosed with depression, bipolar, or an anxiety disorder before the study started, but over the course of the nine-year study, the people with O.S.A. were much more likely to be diagnosed with a mood disorder than those without O.S.A.: nearly three times as likely to be diagnosed with depression, and nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety.
The hysterectomy study compared the medical records of 2,094 women who had undergone a hysterectomy (an operation to remove a woman’s uterus), and 2,094 who had not undergone the operation, following both groups for an average of 22 years. Over the course of those years, they saw a 26% increased risk for depression and a 22% increased risk for anxiety among those in the hysterectomy group; the increased risk shot up to 47% and 45%, respectively, for women who were under 35. The study controlled for a variety of factors, including substance abuse, heart disease, cancer, and more than a dozen other mental and physical conditions.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? Too many health professionals segment the body and mind into two separate camps. That means that mental health professionals rarely think of the fact that someone’s psychological struggles could be rooted in a physical issue, and too many physicians don’t consider how a particular procedure might impact a patient’s mental health when deciding on whether it should be done. This matters for your health quite a lot, because it could lead to misdiagnoses and ineffective (or even harmful) courses of treatment. That’s why it’s so essential to seek out holistic doctors and practitioners who take your whole health history — from surgeries to chronic conditions to mood to birth to trauma and beyond — into account when thinking about the root causes of health issues.
The WellBe Takeaway: Both of these studies underscore the fact that your body and mind are connected in intimate and complex ways. Your mental condition affects your physical condition, and your physical condition affects your mental condition. For most of us, when we feel off mentally, we assume that we need to look inward to fix things. And a lot of the time, that may be the case — but these studies show that anxiety, depression, or another mental condition may, indeed, be rooted in the physical.

5. White House Invites States to Design Wellness Programs that Tie Premium Costs to Health Goals

What: The Trump administration issued a bulletin announcing that, as part of a pilot program, it will let states offer wellness programs in the individual insurance market that tie premium costs to health goals.
The Details: The bulletin came from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, announcing that it will allow 10 states to design wellness programs, which would be incorporated into insurance plans, that included specific wellness benchmarks. By meeting goals like losing weight or lowering blood pressure, people could reduce their premiums by up to 30%, or even more.
Critics of the program say that it discriminates against older, sicker people and those with pre-existing conditions, who will have higher premiums (or even be priced out) for not meeting the goals. The administration says that those who can’t achieve wellness goals for health reasons can get a waiver, and states will be required to include an analysis showing that the wellness programs wouldn’t lead to coverage losses.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? Whether or not you live in one of the 10 states and get a chance to purchase one of these insurance plans with a wellness program, the health goals laid out by insurers will tell us all a lot about what lifestyle factors impact disease. After all, they’d only reduce premiums if the health goals really reduced a person’s risk of illness! But while we wait to see what those goals may be, we can all stick to the lifestyle choices we know support good health: eating well, moving our body, getting enough good sleep, practicing mindfulness and trying to reduce our exposure to harmful chemicals.
The WellBe Takeaway: Health coverage is a huge issue (and a huge disaster) in our country. In fact, that’s basically why WellBe exists: to bridge the gap between wellness and healthcare, and steer people toward a more preventative, lifestyle-based approach to health, rather than just waiting to get sick and getting a prescription. So given all that, we’re hopeful that this pilot program is a sign of a larger shift in thinking as people look for ways to fix our broken healthcare system. Giving people like you — who are empowered in your health and do a lot to stay well — a chance to save money because you will likely use less healthcare is a great way to encourage our whole country to be more empowered in their health.

6. Updates on Johnson & Johnson Lawsuits (Including a HUGE Settlement)

What: In early October, a jury ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $8 BILLION in damages (wow that’s a lot) to a man who claims the company’s antipsychotic drug caused him to develop breasts as a child; later that month, J&J reached a $116.9 million settlement for allegedly misleading marketing of their transvaginal surgical-mesh devices; meanwhile, the company is fending off thousands of lawsuits alleging that their baby powder is contaminated with asbestos.
The Details: The first verdict has to do with the antipsychotic Risperdal, and it’s one of over 13,000 lawsuits alleging that the drug causes gynecomastia in boys, which involves the enlargement of breast tissue. In all of these cases, the plaintiffs claim that J&J knew of this side effect, but didn’t clearly communicate the risk to doctors. This particular verdict is notable because of the HUGE amount J&J has been ordered to pay — far more than any of the other 13,000 lawsuits have yielded, and far more than the $680,000 the plaintiff was initially awarded in 2015. J&J is planning to appeal the decision.
In the other case, J&J reached an agreement with 41 states and the District of Columbia to pay a much lower amount for allegedly misleading doctors and consumers about the risks of transvaginal surgical-mesh devices. Transvaginal surgical-mesh is a material that supports pelvic organs of women suffering from urinary incontinence or pelvic organ prolapse, but it’s alleged that J&J’s particular product actually injured woman. Moreover, the company is once again being accused of not disclosing or understating the risk of injury.
Lastly, one of the women suing J&J for alleged asbestos in their famous baby powder recently spoke to the New York Times, and her interview brought this ongoing issue back to light (if you remember, we reported in a recent wrap-up that J&J’s talc supplier had filed for bankruptcy, and we first covered the baby powder-asbestos story back in January) . There are currently thousands of lawsuits claiming that the talc in the baby powder contained cancer-causing asbestos, and that the company knew about the contamination but did not disclose it to consumers. Though J&J has issued recalls for their talc-based products, they claim that they do not contain asbestos, and continue to defend themselves against lawsuits and appeal those in which they’re found liable.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? True or not (and, given the number of allegations, we’re guessing there’s some truth here), the alleged risks of these Johnson & Johnson products are huge. Risperdal is widely used for a wide variety of conditions (Adrienne’s mom was on this drug for several years before her death), including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and autism, and was one of Johnson & Johnson’s highest-selling products for a long time, which makes its side effects — which include anxiety, muscle spasms, and mood changes (can we just point out the irony of having a mental illness drug that has a side effect of potentially negative mood changes) in addition to gynecomastia (developing breasts) — all the more concerning. As far as the transvaginal surgical-mesh goes, it’s been linked to vaginal pain and inflammation, mesh erosion through the vagina, and painful sex. And asbestos causes cancer — enough said there.
The WellBe Takeaway: As an attorney in the surgical-mesh device lawsuit said, “patients can’t make the best decision for their health unless they and their health care providers know all the pros and cons of a product.” We believe this wholeheartedly, which is why we’re closely following the J&J verdicts and hoping that they will all lead to more transparency from one of the most trusted American healthcare brands going forward. In the meantime, we’re going to continue to ask lots of questions and do our research when it comes to any prescriptions, medical devices or procedures, and products (just like we’re doing for those in our WellBe Spark Health Program!).


7. Exercise Is Good for Your Brain and Can Reduce Alzheimer’s Risk — No Matter When You Start

What: A new study showed that physically fit young adults have healthier brains and better thinking skills than their out-of-shape counterparts, while two recent studies show that being fit can help fend off dementia, even if you don’t start exercising until late in life.
The Details: The study on young people included more than 1,200 young men and women in the United States, and used specialized scans of their brains that looked at the health of their brains’ white matter (aka myelination, which, as we mentioned in the screen time news piece above, is essential to the brain’s ability to function efficiently). The participants also completed questionnaires about their health and lives, a medical checkup, and a two-minute walk test to measure aerobic fitness. After that, they completed a battery of cognitive tests that tested their memory and ability to reason. The results were clear: those who were out of shape performed worse on the cognitive tests and had weaker white matter on their scans than those who were fit.
As far as the studies on older adults, the first one looked at the health records of over 30,000 Norwegian adults who had completed health and medical testing twice each, about ten years apart. The researchers categorized the middle-aged participants based on their fitness level and how it changed from the first test to the second one. They then cross-referenced the records with records from nursing homes and specialized memory clinics to see which participants had developed dementia during the 20 years after the last test. They found that those who started off fit and remained fit during the 10-year study were 50% less likely to develop dementia — this wasn’t that surprising. But what was notable was that there was also a 50% risk reduction for those who had started off out of shape but had become more fit by the second test.
In the other study, researchers measured the fitness and thinking skills of 64 sedentary men and women over the age of 60. After measurements were taken, the participants were randomly assigned to either stretch or exercise; within the group of exercisers, people either walked moderately and steadily on treadmills, or did interval walking, which involved walking at a high incline for four minutes at a time, followed by three minutes of easy walking. They completed these regimens for 12 weeks. At the end of the 12 weeks, the participants repeated the fitness and cognitive tests, and the results were striking. While the performance of moderate walkers and stretchers had remained the same, the interval walkers showed significant improvements in both physical endurance and memory performance. What’s more, the more fit someone had become, the more their memory had sharpened.
Why Does This Matter for My Health? Given that 5.8 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, it’s something that should concern us all. And all three of these studies drive home the point that no matter how old you are, or how fit you are, exercising is always good for your brain. If you’re younger, take note that this new study shows that physical fitness affects brain health much earlier than previously thought. And if you’re older, remember that it’s never too late to improve brain health through exercise (and remember that to get the brain benefits, the exercise needs to be intense enough to raise your heart rate). In other words, no excuses!
The WellBe Takeaway: It’s not news to anyone that exercise is good for you. We’ve known for a while that it’s essential to so many aspects of health, and ever since we found out that not exercising is worse for your health than smoking we try to prioritize breaking a sweat. These new studies give us just another reason to skip the snooze button and head to the gym!
1. Kovacevic, A. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2019 Oct 30.
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