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Fresh Health News: Winter 2023

Catch a Cold
Scientists nose out why respiratory viruses prevail in winter

New findings show that the nose knows how to handle viral particles—until it gets too chilly. When a virus enters the body, our nostrils deploy fluid-filled sacs, called extracellular vesicles (EVs), to surround and attack the intruder, explains a recent report in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. But when researchers exposed nasal tissues to temperatures of 39.9°F, this immune response was reduced by nearly half and the quality of the EVs released was severely impacted. As a result, viral particles were better able to stick to and infect the nasal cells. Study authors believe they’ve sniffed out the first biological explanation for why we’re more prone to upper respiratory infections during the winter months. And their findings snub the previous notion that colds spread when we’re driven indoors in close proximity to one another. Perhaps this will be the season of the face scarf?

Eye-Opening Study

Unhealthy sleep patterns have nightmarish effects on our bodies, awakening higher risks of heart and kidney disease, stroke, diabetes, depression and more. And new findings published in the journal BMJ Open tuck glaucoma in among those problems. The second leading cause of blindness worldwide, glaucoma refers to increased eye pressure that damages the optic nerve, slowly leading to irreversible vision loss. The large study surveyed more than 400,000 people between the ages of 40 and 69 about their sleep habits and then monitored them for an average of 10.5 years. Under- or oversleeping, defined as anything less than seven hours or longer than nine, roused an eight percent increase in glaucoma risk. Participants with insomnia experienced a 12 percent greater risk, and those who complained of daytime sleepiness saw an elevated risk of 20 percent. The researchers also noticed that those who developed glaucoma tended to be older, male and smokers and have high blood pressure or diabetes. Being from an observational study, these results can’t name poor sleep as a direct cause of glaucoma, but the findings do sound an alarm about the correlation between the two—reason enough to ensure you’re getting good shut-eye.

Cholesterol Check

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends adults age 40 to 75 with cardiovascular disease risk factors take a statin. Unfortunately, less than half of eligible Americans actually do, reports the Journal of the American Heart Association. And even though “cholesterol lowering” supplements fill store shelves, these DIY treatments don’t pack the same punch. New research shows that over-the-counter dietary supplements commonly marketed as cholesterol reducers have no significant impact on LDL cholesterol. A Journal of the American College of Cardiology study randomly assigned 190 adults to a low-dose statin, a dietary supplement (fish oil, garlic, cinnamon, turmeric, plant sterols or red yeast rice) or a placebo. After four weeks, those taking the statin experienced an average 35 percent decrease in their “bad” cholesterol, while those on supplements and the placebo saw no notable drop. If you smoke, have diabetes or hypertension, carry excess weight, face a family history of heart disease or can’t keep your cholesterol under 200 mg/dL, talk to your doctor about the best course of action for your long-term heart health.

On the Bright Side

Two decades ago, 12 percent of Americans 65 and older faced dementia. But that gloomy statistic is brightening. More recent numbers indicate that impairments have dropped by nearly a third. And in October, the World Health Organization developed a blueprint identifying and addressing knowledge gaps to make dementia research more impactful. As dementia studies currently account for less than 1.5 percent of total health research, this marks an important step in gaining a more thorough understanding of the seventh leading cause of death. Let’s take a look at some of the more recent successes in the dementia department:

  1. A person’s dementia risk markedly decreases the longer their systolic blood pressure remains within the target range of 110 to 140 mmhg. –Circulation
  2. Crossword puzzles are more effective than Wordle, Sudoku and other brain games at slowing cognitive and functional decline. –NEJM Evidence
  3. Nose pickers, beware! In mice, damaged nasal tissues permit a known Alzheimer’s contributor, the bacteria Chlamydia pneumoniae, to invade the brain and infect the central nervous system faster and more easily. -Scientific Reports

Gaming Reboot

Video games may power up cognitive development

For years, studies have connected video games to antisocial behaviors and poor academic performance, drawing a picture of zombie-eyed kids in the midst of a screen-induced brain drain. But new research plugs into the positive cognitive effects of gaming on children. Experts from the National Institute of Drug Abuse analyzed data from the ongoing Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study, the largest long-term look at brain development and child health in the U.S. And they discovered that nine and 10 year olds who played video games roughly three hours per day performed better on working memory and impulse control tasks than their peers who didn’t play any video games. The findings bolster other research that links gaming to enhanced attention, creativity, problem solving and increased IQ. Of course, that doesn’t green-light endless video game play. The American Academy of Pediatrics still recommends limiting video game time to an hour or two per day, citing that more screen time may negatively impact physical activity, social-emotional development and sleep.

Brain Gains

New research expands our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease will impact nearly 14 million Americans by 2060, predicts the Centers for Disease Control, so researchers continue striving to understand the condition and develop treatments to slow its march. A recent study published in the journal Nature explains that the formation of plaques between neurons causes swelling along the brain’s axons (communication lines). This disrupts electrical signals and leads to symptoms such as memory loss, mood changes and difficulty with familiar tasks. After pinpointing a protein that they believe is responsible for the swelling, the scientists then successfully used gene therapy to reduce accumulations of this protein and improve neuron function in mice. Further research is needed to determine if the treatment could apply to people with Alzheimer’s. While such clinical trials might take a decade or longer, the study authors hope that this protein biomarker will help doctors diagnose the disease in its early stages and allow patients to begin treatments and lifestyle modifications sooner.

Photographs by (scarf) pikselstock; (men-2) Prostock-studio; (woman) Ground Picture

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