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Jul 31

A recent paper (freely available at PLOS one) is reporting how relaxation response (RR) (a form of meditation) changed whole blood gene expression.

In the introduction they report previous research that found that meditation decreases oxygen consumption, reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. The current paper wanted to look at more the underlying molecular changes that bring about the above physiological responses and the many other positive benefits reported with meditation. Now it would have been nice to examine genes that changed in the brain but that is not possible in live humans (for multiple genes) so they instead look at changes in the blood. There were three groups: control, short term practitioners of RR (8 weeks), and long term practitioners.

2,209 differentially expressed genes were reported when comparing long term RR subjects and controls. Even the short term RR subjects displayed 1,561 differentially expressed genes compared to controls. Additionally, of the 2,2209 and 1,561 gene changes in the meditation groups 433 were common between the two groups.

When they tried to bunch these gene changes into common pathway groups they observed alteration in cellular metabolism, oxidative phosphorylation, generation of free oxygen species, and response to oxidative stress.

We hypothesize that RR elicitation is associated with systemic gene
expression changes in molecular and biochemical pathways
involved in cellular metabolism, oxidative phosphorylation/
generation of reactive oxygen species and response to oxidative
stress and that these changes to some degree serve to ameliorate
the negative impact of stress.

Now of course like most other studies they are not really answering mechanistic questions with this study but it does offer further support that meditation is not just changing ‘feelings’ but is doing something at the molecular level.

They further discuss a previous paper that examined gene changes with the meditative technique of  Qi Qong.

Overall, similar genomic pattern changes occurred in practitioners
of a specific mind body technique (Qi Gong) as well as in
our long-term practitioners who utilized different RR practices
including Vipassna, mantra, mindfulness or transcendental
meditation, breath focus, Kripalu or Kundalini Yoga, and
repetitive prayer. This indicates there is a common RR state
regardless of the techniques used to elicit it.

What I found most interesting about the study is that 8 weeks of practice of this meditative technique resulted in similar gene changes (at least in the same direction) as the long term practitioners. This makes it more assessable to the masses, you do not have to be a long term practitioner to get results (you don’t have to go up in the mountains and learn from a guru for several years).

One reader had commented that researchers should test more Chinese/alternative medicine so here is one example. I have two friends that have recently taken up meditation and find it effective in everything from general reduction of stress to sports performance. I have many more friends that have started the practice of yoga, and in the discussion session of the paper the authors specifically mention  Kripalu or Kundalini Yoga. Now I know there are many different types of yoga and I am curious about the two forms they specifically mentioned. I have not done meditation since I was 12 years old it may be time I start again.

Say you don’t for whatever reason enjoy traditional exercise programs which I am always promoting then try meditation. It offers many of the same benefits but also maybe some additional ones. Or even better do both traditional exercises and a meditation technique.

Jul 29

A new study is predicting that 86 % of Americans could be overweight by 2030, if current trends continue. Among the population 51.1 % are projected to be obese. Health care costs due to the overweight would be 16 – 18 % of the total health care costs (via John Hopkins Bloomberg school of public health, and Wired). I have covered the growing obesity problem and related issues (here and here) previously but I am not sure how much a difference it makes. Of course my voice doesn’t account or matter much, but the institutes and government sources that are the source of this data are heard by all, but I am afraid are not really listened to.

While all the government reports appear to do nothing to change our behavior, on the other hand a change in peoples wallets does appear to change behavior according to some new data.

The good news is that Americans drove 9.6 billion fewer miles this May compared to a year ago. According to futurepundit (read his complete piece) this translates into a 3.7% decline. Suggesting that people are telecomuting, taking the bus, train, or bike according to the news reports and public mass transit data (of course the government has to worry now about the reduced taxes collected). This would go along with my piece suggesting one possible good outcome of the rising cost of gasoline will be more people will choose to bike to work, which may reduce obesity and increase fitness.

So it appears that the bottom line financial reality is enough to get people to change their habits (they had no choice), but not a continuing growing waistline and all the subsequent health complications.

I will try to reduce my reporting of the negative health data since it does not really appear to influence the people that need to change and instead try to cover more positive data of the potential health benefits the occur when people do change.

Jul 28

Life Expectancy at birth (years)Life expectancy:

Image via Wikipedia

Another sign of the growing health problems of developed countries is the rapid increase of ‘adult pill’ use by kids as reported by NY times. Previously, I had covered the new guidelines of use of anti-cholesterol medication in kids as young as 8, and potential long term harm this could result in.

In America, there has been a 151 % increase of type II diabetes drugs prescribed for children from 2001 to 2007. What is driving this increase drug requirements of children – no surprise that it is obesity (covered here and here). There is also a 137 % increase in acid reflux use (increased in the obese situation), and a smaller increase in high blood pressure (18 %) and cholesterol lowering drugs (12 %) in children during this same time period.

There has been several articles now suggesting that for America (just one example of a developed country) that for the first time the current generation of children might not live as long as their parents (Washington Post article as just one example). Researchers are forecasting a 2-5 year drop in life expectancy for the current generation. And if you don’t think this can happen in our modern times to a developed country one just has to look at Russia.

This potential drop in predicted lifespan in the children of today mainly due to obesity is a serious problem. The next question then becomes is giving pills to our children the answer? Is this going to solve the problem, or just put a bandaid on the problem.

Jul 26
BOURNEMOUTH, UNITED KINGDOM - (FILE) Mark Boyl...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Yesterday, I posted a piece about research that indicates that walking speed is a good predictor for mortality in 70-79 year old (original research paper). I then challenged people to see if they could walk as fast as the those people in their 70s.

“Now most of you reading this are not in their 70s but I challenge you to go walk 400m, or might as well make it a mile (4 laps around a track – close enough) and time yourself. Can you walk as fast as the fastest group of 70+ year olds which for a mile would equate to 14 min and 4 sec to 17 min and 16 sec ? I am betting most of you will not walk it in under 14 min and 4 seconds. But I am also hoping I am wrong :)

I took up my own challenge and my first lap time for the 400m walk was 2 min 57 sec, and my total time for the mile was 11 min 55 sec – which translates to 5 miles per hour (assuming it would only take me 5 seconds to travel another 9 meters to make up exactly a mile). Nothing to be proud of but yes I was able to beat the fastest 70 year old (14 min 4 sec). What about you? Also it will be interesting to see how much my walking speed decreases as I age.

JB had a comment that he thought the finding of walking speed correlation with mortality could be related to lean muscle mass as pointed out at the Arthur De Vaney website. I would agree with this possibility, but it is not dead easy to get accurate readings of your overall lean body mass. While on the other hand it is easy and cheap to test your walking speed.

So go out there and enjoy the weekend, but if you get a chance try to walk a timed and accurately measured mile (4 laps around track) and report back.

Jul 25

The time it took people  to walk 400m (1 lap around a high school track) was found to predict chances of dying and risk of cardiovascular disease. Newman et. al., 2006 (freely available) examined 3,075 subjects for both their walking speed then continued to track these subjects health. Now the subjects were 70-79 years old, but before you dismiss this as irrelevant to you continue reading until the end.

Now not all subjects were even capable of walking the 400m but of the ones that could the subjects were encouraged to walk as fast as they could (without running) at a pace they could maintain. The time to complete the 400m route could be broken down into 4 groups: 201- 289, 290-322, 323 – 361, 362 – 942 seconds. To make this more convenient I will convert these into minutes and seconds: 3 min and 31 sec. to 4 min and 49 sec for the fastest group, 4 min 50 sec to 5 min 22 sec, 5 min 23 sec to 6 min 1 sec, 6 min 1 sec to 15 min 42 sec. And to convert this into how many minutes per mile the different groups are walking you can multiply by 4 (in reality 4.0225 but 4.0 is close enough but remember to get your conversion of seconds to minutes correctly).  So the fastest group was walking at a pace between 14 min and 4 sec to 17 min and 16 sec. to cover a mile. Now remember these were 70 to 79 year old subjects.

The subjects in the slowest group had a 2.8 times higher likelihood of dying compared to the group that could walk the fastest.

To make it even simpler and more pertinent for each minute slower a person walked the 400m there was a 29% higher rate of mortality and 20% higher rate of cardiovascular disease.

Now most of you reading this are not in their 70s but I challenge you to go walk 400m, or might as well make it a mile (4 laps around a track – close enough) and time yourself. Can you walk as fast as the fastest group of 70+ year olds which for a mile would equate to 14 min and 4 sec to 17 min and 16 sec ? I am betting most of you will not walk it in under 14 min and 4 seconds. But I am also hoping I am wrong :)

(Yes I am asking you to walk 4 times longer than the 70+ group but for walking speed there is no real difference between 400m and 1 mile, like there would be for running.)

Would you be concerned if you could not walk faster than the quickest 70 year old group? Of course there should be some factor that would/should be calculated for your younger age (assuming you are younger) – but we will leave that aside for now. But at the minimum I would say you should be walking faster than the healthiest 70+ year old – so go out there and see if you can walk (not run) a mile faster than 14 minutes and 4 seconds. I dare you to try this challenge :)

Please write a comment or send me an email with your time – you can even do it anonymously if you choose.

Update: see my next post of when I tested my own 400m walking time and 1 mile walking time.

Jul 24

Low levels of the good cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL), is linked with worse memory performance. So here is another example of what is traditionally considered a heart health measurement that also give us important information about our brain health (see here).

The nice thing about the various cholesterol measurements is that many of you will know your measurements so then you can see where you fall when I provide the details below. If you don’t know your measurements I would suggest you find out – for both your heart and brain health.

You have all heard about cholesterol, but in overly simplistic terms it can be broken down to bad cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and good cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) – see wiki entry.

In a recent study by Singh-Manoux et al., 2008 they studied 3,673 subjects at both age 55 and 61 and measured their total cholesterol, HDL, triglycerides (all were measured after an overnight fast), and short term verbal memory. After controlling for all the various variables (e.g. education) they found that subjects with HDL levels <= 40 mg/dL had worse memory than those with high HDL levels (>= 60 mg/dL). Additionally, those subjects that had a drop of HDL from age 55 to 61 also had a drop in memory ability. The authors giving us these results suggest that having HDL levels between the two extremes (41 – 59 mg/dL) does not produce significant differences it is only at the two far ends of the spectrum that differences are found. But these are not extreme values for I know a triathlete that has HDL level is at 96 mg/dL. Additionally, you must remember that subjects that showed a drop in HDL levels over the 6 years between the tests showed a decline in memory – suggesting small changes of HDL are meaningful.

Now if you are in your twenties you might think that this whole cholesterol thing only concerns ‘older’ people. But I can tell you I have a friend in her twenties that HDL was in the 30s, meaning it would fall into the bad memory group (for the record she has a good memory – but what is going to happen when she gets older?). And I know another friend that while he eats very healthy falls into the low category. Therefore, you can not assume that because of your age, eating and exercise habits, body type that you must have a good high level of HDL. So no matter what your age it would not hurt to know your cholesterol and its various sub components.

But more importantly once you find out your measurements to do something about them. We can choose various lifestyles and/or drugs to change our levels to hopefully improve both our body and brain health.

Very quick list of things to do to increase your HDL levels: quit smoking, lose weight, exercise, mild levels of alcohol, increase consumption of good fats (e.g. fish, olive oil, nuts). However, things are never quite this simple. In a future piece I will give you more details that might shock you a bit – it surprised me.

For now find out your various cholesterol measurements when you can, and with or without this knowledge make appropriate lifestyle choices (which we all already know at various levels) that is know to increase your HDL levels – and improve most other health measurements.

(via FuturePundit)

Jul 22

Can you ever be too rich or too thin is a semi-famous saying. Is there any validity to this statement?

Why did humans invent money? It provides a convenient unit of exchange. And what are the most important things that money is used to purchase; the necessities of life – food and shelter.

Yesterday, I wrote about the possible link between the growing obesity problem in America and the rise of consumer debt. In today’s piece I will start into a possible biological explanation of this link.

In the past we would exchange one form of food for another, or exchange other goods for food. While many of us may think of the gold standard (money backed by an equal worth of gold) however, what is the ‘gold standard’ exchange unit in the brain? At an evolutionary level wealth (be it paper in the wallet, money in the bank, or gold in the safe) at the brain level equates to not being hungry and possibly have a surplus of food supply, or prior to our ability to store food – fat storage. It is only in the relatively recent times (evolutionary speaking) that we were able to store food, before that all there was your fat storage.

Now this link between wealth and not feeling hungry may make intuitive sense to you but is there any studies that support this general idea?

Briers et al., 2006 studied this question in 3 different scenarios. In the first study, one group had not eaten for 4 hours (which is not a long time – just the normal time between meals), and the second group was given a large piece of cake (then filled questionnaires for 20 minutes). When both groups where then given the opportunity to give money to charity the group that was satiated (not hungry) gave more money than the hungry group (had not eaten for 4 hours).

In the second study the group that received olfactory food cues (which increases desire to eat) gave less money than the group that did not receive the olfactory cues.

The final experiment is the most interesting. One group was told to imagine winning a large lottery ($35,000) while the second group imagined winning a very small lottery win ($35). Then both groups were asked to make a list of all the things they were dreaming of buying with their imagined winnings. Finally the groups were  then offered two different bowls of M & Ms in a made up taste test experiment, while what they were really measuring was overall consumption. The group in the high lottery winning group ate more M & Ms (if they excluded restrained eaters that were dieting – so top down processing can make a difference) than the group that only imagined winning aa small amount of money. Now the authors go on to give us a bigger picture understanding of how food and money is tied together in the brain:

Breiter, Aharon, Kahneman, Dale, and Shizgal (2001) found that the orbitofrontal cortex is activated by monetary rewards, whereas O’Doherty, Deichmann, Critchley, and Dolan (2002) found the orbitofrontal cortex to be activated by the consumption and anticipation of sweet-tasting food rewards. The overlap in neural activation suggests a common pathway for processing money and food rewards, and such a common pathway would have major implications for the standard economic perspective on the utility of money… The emerging evidence that these two reward systems share a brain region (e.g., Breiter et al., 2001; O’Doherty et al., 2002) raises the question of the extent to which this region is involved in the processing of all kinds of rewards (Montague & Berns, 2002; Wilson & Daly, 2004). For example, neural evidence suggests that the same dopaminergic reward circuitry in the midbrain is activated for a wide variety of reinforcers, including attractive faces (Aharon et al., 2001), funny cartoons (Mobbs, Greicius, Abdel-Azim, Menon, & Reiss, 2003), cultural objects such as sports cars (Erk, Spitzer, Wunderlich, Galley, & Walter, 2002), drugs (Schultz, 2002), and money (Breiter et al., 2001).

Keep in mind the importance of the dopaminergic reward system for both food and money for future blog pieces.

Does the links between food and money have even wider implications, the authors think so.

Some behavioral evidence is consistent with the proposal that financial and caloric resources are closely entwined. Nelson and Morrison (2005) found that men who feel either poor or hungry prefer heavier women than men who feel rich or satiated. The authors suggested that preference for women’s body weight is determined by the individual’s experience of resource scarcity…Thus, we claim that people are less likely to sacrifice money when they desire food than when they are satiated, and that people eat more when they desire money than when their desire for money is low.

In summary the authors point several interesting ideas:

Money is viewed as a means to obtain biologically relevant incentives (food), and food is viewed as a means of preventing the body’s energy resources from falling below an energy set point… Finally, the symmetric association between food and money may help explain why poor people are especially vulnerable to overeating and have ill health as a result. In industrialized countries such as the United States (Drewnowski & Specter, 2004), as well as in developing countries (James, 2004), obesity is usually associated with poverty. Perhaps in present-day societies, the attraction to money is so powerful that people who, relatively speaking, fail in their quest for (more) money become frustrated. Accordingly, as financial and caloric resources are exchangeable, they might tend to appease their desire for money by consuming more calories than is healthy.

Now there are still a couple of possibilities here – and I have no real answer to the chicken or egg problem at this point. Does the frustration of not consuming (and/or accumulating) money make economically disadvantaged people consume more calories and become overweight/obese to compensate. Or is it also possible that being overweight, which gives a feeling to the body/brain that you are ‘wealthy’ make you less concerned about accumulating money? As with most things it could easily be a bit of both.

The other point to keep in mind to make sense of the above study is you the reader might have thought that overweight people being constantly satiated should be more generous with their money. But I am not sure it works that way, because the reason people are overweight is due to them feeling hungry more often that non-overweight people. On the other hand it is possible that overweight people can not endure the suffering of hungry signals and they constantly are eating to make sure they never get into that state. Slim people feel more satiated during a greater length of time in the average day than those struggling with weight gain and/or they can handle the pain signals of hunger better. I will try to sort this all out in future pieces (if possible) as I get into the biology of the reward system and food.

According to the above cited paper if your brain is getting a fed signal then you are more generous (more altruistic), which is a good thing, but maybe it also means you are just less concerned about money (and hence do not save and go into debt) because your body/mind is telling you that you are ‘wealthy’.

The question though is does being overweight really affect our economic choices – saving money or going into debt? What does this mean for developed or developing countries? What does it mean to you as an individual? Can you hack your basic economic choices by changing your lifestyle?

I will try to answer some of these questions in the near future.

Jul 21

Through my various scattered readings I thought I had found a link between obesity and going into debt due to neuro-chemical changes in the brain. Two new reports prompted me to re-ponder the link at the population level between the rise of obesity and the rise of consumer debt.

CDC (center of disease control and prevention) released the latest obesity numbers (2007) here. One of their own objective as part of “Healthy people 2010″ project is to reduce the percentage of obesity to 15%. Well, only one state even fell into  the range of 15-19% obesity, which was Colorado at 18.7%. It looks like there is a lot of work (exercise) ahead if America has any hope of reaching this goal by 2010. I personally do not believe even one state will reach this goal let along all 50. The data supports the opposite, as 45 of the 50 states obesity rate increased. Overall, the obesity rate increased to 25.6%, which is 1.7% higher than 2 years ago. Wrong direction. The other startling fact which I did not know is this set of data is gathered by phone interviews and use ‘self-reported’ weight and height. CDC understands the potential problem with self reported weight and height and therefore estimate the real obesity rate is more likely to be 34% (as reported here). Add the percentage of overweight adults to the 34% obese and you are in the range of greater than 66% (see here). Below is one graph that I found that show the obesity trend over time.

Now let us switch gears and look at consumer debt.

NY times had a piece this weekend on the rise of consumer debt. You can see in this interactive graph on the NY times site the the ratio of savings (beige – top of graph) versus debt (blue variations – bottom of graph) is not going in the right direction (though I am sure some economists could come up with an opposite argument).

What is interesting for this blog piece is what appears to be a nice correlation between the rise of obesity and the rise of consumer debt (and reduced savings).

Does a full stomach, increased fat storage, and all the subsequent (and possibly changes that occur in the brain prior to the increase of fat storage – potential cause) changes that occur in the brain (I will go into the details in another piece) make the body/brain feel ‘full’ and hence no need to ‘save’ for a rainy day because the ‘store’ is full? Can you afford to spend (and borrow) at an almost unlimited rate if your body/mind is telling you that you are ‘rich’, that you are in the time of plentiful?

There does appear to be a strong correlation between the rise of obesity and consumer debt – but that does not mean the link is causal. But I will in the future start outlining the potential biological link between the brain changes that occur to induce obesity and/or the changes in the brain that occur with obesity that could influence economic choices.

Scary potential future ? Yes.

Can you hack your body/mind to make better economic choices?

brain fitness, brain hack, neuroeconomics | 5 Comments »

Jul 18

I have been talking about gasoline the last two days (the good side of high priced gasoline, and the neighborhoods which are high priced gasoline friendly) so I figured I would conclude this week with the song by Sheryl Crow – Gasoline. (even though the price of oil has fallen $ 14 in the last 3 days).


So keep this song in your mind the next time you have to decide between driving and walking/biking and make the choice that will make you healthier, wealthier, and be good for the environment.

Jul 17
A view of Downtown Seattle (and, beyond that, ...Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday I wrote about the possible health benefits of high gas prices – that people start using human powered transportation, lose weight and become healthier. However, using a bike or traveling by foot is not practical in all situations. Are people taking into considerations how easy it is to get about without an automobile in their next move? A good choice could save money (assuming the new location is not more expensive) and time if the new neighborhood is more walk/bike friendly.

There is a website called Walkscore (go see the ‘heat’ maps – could not find a way to embed them) that gives a walk score ranking (how easy it is to get around by foot – the higher the score the better) for various cities and neighborhoods, such as Seattle. San Fransisco had the highest walkscore, with Seattle coming in 6th (among the top 40 U.S. cities). But beyond the general city score you can zoom it to get specific neighborhood/area scores. This allows you to more fine tune your searches and see what neighborhood is the most human transport friendly.

If gas prices remain high (I am not good at the crystal ball economic stuff) and/or continue to rise in the long term will these new potential choices have an effect on real estate? Saving gas money might not be the only reason behind such neighborhood choices – it could also be for general environmental considerations (eco friendly) and/or more of a neighborhood feel.

Now what is needed is a mashup of available real estate, price, and walk score – and all searchable. Just another web 2.0 idea (probably already done).

To healthier life choices.

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