In Vino Veritas?

GEICO camelHappy Hump Day!

While we may not be able to make you laugh quite as much as the GEICO camel, we do bring you news that should at least make you smile.

A new Spanish study suggests that drinking wine might help you avoid depression.

Although drinking a lot of wine or other alcohol may be a sign of depression or other mental health problems, alcohol in moderation may benefit mental health according to the study authors.

One drink a day, preferentially wine, may help prevent depression,” said lead researcher Dr. Miguel Martinez-Gonzalez, chair of the department of preventive medicine and public health at the University of Navarra, in Pamplona.

red-wine_0Researchers followed more than 5,500 light-to-moderate drinkers, aged between 55 and 80 for up to seven years.  None of the individuals had suffered from depression or had alcohol-related problems at the start of the study. Over seven years, with medical exams, interviews with dietitians and questionnaires, the researchers kept tabs on participants’ mental health and lifestyle.  Wine was the most popular drink and participants who drank two to seven glasses a week were the least likely to suffer from depression, compared to nondrinkers. These findings remained significant even after the researchers took factors such as smoking, diet and marriage into account.

But before you start reaching for the corkscrew, we need to warn you that not all experts agree with the findings and even the research team, only saw benefit in moderate drinkers.

Martinez-Gonzalez thinks the apparent benefit of wine in preventing depression may work the same way that moderate drinking helps prevent heart disease.

Depression and heart disease seem to share some common mechanisms because they share many similar protective factors and risk factors,” he said. However, he added that depression prevention is not a reason to start drinking.

If you are not a drinker, please don’t start drinking,” he said. “If you drink alcohol, please keep it in the range of one or less drinks a day and consider drinking wine instead of other alcoholic beverages.”

Tony Tang, an adjunct psychology professor at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., said the new research “is consistent with other studies suggesting modest health benefits of very modest drinking.”

red wine glassesBut, Tang said other factors may be at work in the potential connection between wine and depression. He noted that compared to nondrinkers, those in the Spanish study who drank a moderate amount of wine were more likely to be married men who were also physically active.  Being single or divorced, living alone and being sedentary are well-established risk factors of depression. Thus, he suggests, the correlation between modest drinking and depression is a coincidence caused by these other known factors.

An adequate social life is the most important factor we know that protects people from depression,” Tang said. “Perhaps not drinking is a sign of serious social isolation in Spain while drinking a glass of wine a day is simply a sign of having a normal social life.”

red wine with friends 2Wine with friends anyone?

Cheers!

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Adrenaline Junkie

punch1Although we repeatedly hear about the negative health effects of stress, today we’re here to tell you that stress isn’t necessarily all bad. Like food, sex, and shoes, it’s quality, not quantity, that determines whether stress helps or hurts!

Beneficial stress comes in the form of an acute, stimulating surge, like when your raft starts to overturn in some seriously churning rapids. The resulting single adrenaline (epinephrine) burst that comes and goes very quickly is a good thing because it gives you energy and gets you ready to mobilize for immediate action.

Physiologically, the adrenaline created by an abrupt blast of stress sends a flood of oxygen-rich red blood cells through your body, boosts your immune system, and signals your brain to start releasing painkilling endorphins.

stressed-womanBad stress, on the other hand, is intense and drags on and on. This constant grind causes your adrenal glands to leak a slow, steady stream of another stress hormone: cortisol. And unlike adrenaline, which tends to hit your system in a flash and then dissipate, cortisol often wears out its welcome by hanging around in your bloodstream, driving up blood pressure, suppressing your immune system, and making you more susceptible to a slew of stress-related ailments, including colds, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, and even heart disease and stroke.

So how do good stressors battle the bad ones? It all comes back to the positive power of adrenaline. In addition to all of its performance-enhancing effects, it triggers the release of dopamine and endorphins, two neurotransmitters that make you feel good – really, really good.

It also makes me feel good – really, really good, given the activities I have planned this weekend. But more of that later…

skydivingFor now, let’s return to our favorite stress hormone – epinephrine. If you’ve ever tried skydiving, bungee jumping or heli-skiing, you’ll probably remember literally flipping out during your first attempt. But once you landed safely you probably experienced a euphoric, fist-pumping high thanks to dopamine flooding your brain’s pleasure center, giving you. During the next jump, you may still have felt all the same physiological stress responses such as a pounding heart and sweaty palms but instead of being terrifying, it’s exhilarating, because your mind’s already anticipating the thrill of that dopamine reward.

And the more times you do it, the less anxiety you’re likely to feel and the more fun you’ll have. That’s because your brain’s tagging the experience as a positive one.

And the benefits persist.  Before long, your body can start to develop an almost Pavlovian response to stressful situations. If your nerves are tingling, your stomach is clenching, and you can barely breathe, then it’s tricked into thinking something really awesome is about to happen!

white-water-canoeing-18990699That’s what researchers at Texas A&M University found when they put a small sample of men and women through a series of purposely stressful outdoor adventure tasks. Some subjects – the fittest ones who were already comfortable with physical challenges fared better than others. The researchers discovered that those participants had a reduced stress response (including lower blood levels of cortisol) when facing demanding activities like whitewater canoeing or rock climbing. Essentially, they were more confident and less stressed out, even though the tasks were potentially hazardous. This may be because their past experience blazing through strenuous situations made them less likely to perceive new challenges as stressful or difficult. And according to the researchers, it’s possible to transfer that oh-so-cool-and-collected response to life’s other nerve-racking events.

Better still, you don’t have to scuba dive with great whites or BASE jump off the Empire State Building to reap the stress-busting perks of adrenaline. Whether you hit the bunny slope or the double-black-diamond mogul fields, as long as you’re taking a giant step outside your comfort zone, you’ll give your body that adrenaline kick and when you do it regularly and keep testing your edge, you’ll change your relationship with stress for the better.

So next time that little voice inside your head starts clamoring, no freaking way, just go for it and be prepared to reap the rewards.

dropcoaster

bull runWhich brings me back to my weekend. Keen to test the above theory for myself and readers of SRxA’s Word on Health, I will be spending tomorrow riding some of the longest, highest, fastest most insane rollercoasters in the country…and the following day I will be running with the bulls. If being pursued by twenty-four 1,000-pound bulls doesn’t set my adrenaline firing on all cylinders, then I guess nothing will.

I”ll let you know (hopefully) on Monday!

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Sex, Lies and…Polygraphs

Lies-and-TruthWhat is the one thing people are most likely to lie about?  No prizes for guessing –  the answer, more often than not, is sex.

And, why do people lie?

Well according to new research – people lie about their sexual behavior to match cultural expectations, even though they don’t distort other gender-related behaviors.

The study, published in the journal Sex Roles, included 293 heterosexual college students between the ages of 18 and 25. Students completed a questionnaire that asked how often (from never to a few times a day), they engaged in 124 different behaviors.

Polygraph_TestOne group of students was hooked up to a lie detector while they filled out the questionnaire, but were not informed that the lie detector did not actually work. The use of the bogus polygraph was intended to make participants feel pressured to tell the truth. The other group was connected to the apparatus before the study began, supposedly to measure anxiety, but the machine was removed before they completed the questionnaire.

In general, the results showed that both men and women tended to act as would be expected for their gender. Men reported more typical-male behaviors and women reported more typical-female behaviors, regardless of whether they were attached to the lie detector or not.

But for non-sexual behaviors, the participants didn’t seem to feel any added pressure to respond in stereotypical ways for their gender.

In other words, women who were hooked up to the lie detector and those who weren’t were equally likely to admit to bench pressing weights – a stereotypical male activity, while the men happily admitted to reading and writing poetry – a stereotypic female activity.

Men and women didn’t feel compelled to report what they did in ways that matched the stereotypes for their gender for the non-sexual behaviors,” said lead author Terri Fisher, professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

gender rolesHowever when it came to sex, everything changed!

Men wanted to be seen as “real men:” the kind who had many partners and a lot of sexual experience. Women, on the other hand, wanted to be seen as having less sexual experience than they actually had, to match what is expected of women.

There is something unique about sexuality that led people to care more about matching the stereotypes for their gender,” said Terri Fisher “Sexuality seemed to be the one area where people felt some concern if they didn’t meet the stereotypes of a typical man or a typical woman.”

The one exception was sexual behavior, where, for example, men reported more sexual partners when they weren’t hooked up to the lie detector than whey they were. Women, on the other hand, reported fewer partners when they were not hooked up to the lie detector than when they were. A similar pattern was found for reports of ever having experienced sexual intercourse.

art_sex2-Men and women had different answers about their sexual behavior when they thought they had to be truthful,” Fisher said.

This suggests that unless there is extreme pressure to be honest, both men and women will continue to lie about their sex lives. Shocker!

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Feeling Good about Memorial Day?

memorial_dayWe’d like to start this post by wishing all of our US readers a wonderful Memorial Day. And for those elsewhere, Happy Monday!

For some of us, Memorial Day signifies a welcome day off from work and the unofficial start of summer. For others, the day is all about trips to memorials or cemeteries with family. And for a few it may be a day in private introspection and remembrance.

Memorial Day aloneIf you’re one of the latter, or tend to keep to yourself on this day, you might want to re-consider this year.  According to research, getting together with friends and family for a grill out or participating in a parade can have positive health benefits.

Holidays offer the opportunity to gather with others to laugh and bond. Social activities have been shown to reduce stress, and satisfying social relationships have been shown to result in fewer health problems and longer, happier lives. In contrast, an isolated, less social life has been linked to depression and cognitive decline, according to reports in the Harvard Women’s Health Watch.

One study of almost 5,000 adults in Alameda County, Calif. showed that individuals who maintained strong social connections live longer than those who lived more isolated lives. Subjects were rated using a social network index, which translated their answers into a number. A high number indicated a strong amount of social contacts while a low number represented social isolation.

memorial-day-partyOver the following nine years, researchers tracked the subjects’ health. They found that people who placed lower on the social network showed an increased risk of death, implicating social isolation as a major risk factor for poor health.

So why are social connections so healthy? It appears that both biological and behavioral factors are at play. Some research points to stress reduction when we’re happily supported and surrounded by a social circle. Conversely stress, wreaks havoc on our immune system which in turn negatively affect coronary arteries and heart health.

Of course, holidays such as Memorial Day, can also bring out the worst in us.  Excessive drinking, eating and sun-tanning are not good for our health. And sadly, bingeing on beer with a buddy or piling your plate with potato salad in the company of others doesn’t make it any healthier!

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Born to have Baby Blues?

Mother In Nursery Suffering From Post Natal DepressionIt’ s not clear what causes postpartum depression.  The condition, which is marked by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, exhaustion and anxiety, usually begins within four weeks of giving birth and can persist for weeks, months or even up to a year. An estimated 10 to 18% of all new mothers develop the condition, and the rate rises to 30 to 35% among women with previously diagnosed mood disorders.

Scientists have long believed the symptoms were related to the large drop-off in the mother’s estrogen levels following childbirth, however studies have shown that both depressed and non-depressed women have similar estrogen levels.

Now researchers from Johns Hopkins say they have discovered alterations in two genes that, can reliably predict whether a woman will develop postpartum depression.

genetic link to post-partum depressionThe genetic modifications, which alter the way genes function without changing the underlying DNA sequence, can apparently be detected in the blood of pregnant women during any trimester, potentially providing a simple way to foretell depression in the weeks after giving birth, and an opportunity to intervene before symptoms become debilitating.

By studying mice, the researchers suspected that estrogen induced genetic changes in cells of the hippocampus – the part of the brain that governs mood.  They  then created a complicated statistical model to find the candidate which could be potential predictors for postpartum depression. That process resulted in the identification of two genes, known as TTC9B and HP1BP3.

Little is known about these genes except for their involvement in hippocampal activity. However the team suspects that they may have something to do with the creation of new cells in the hippocampus and the ability of the brain to reorganize and adapt in the face of new environments. Both of these elements are known to be important in mood.

Furthermore, estrogen can behave like an antidepressant, so when it is inhibited, it adversely affects mood.

Postpartum depression can be harmful to both mother and child,” says Zachary Kaminsky, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “But we don’t have a reliable way to screen for the condition before it causes harm, and a test like this could be that way.”

The findings of the small study involving 52 pregnant women are described online in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

blood  test + pregnancyThe study involved looking for epigenetic changes tin the thousands of genes present in blood samples from 52 pregnant women with mood disorders. The women were followed both during and after pregnancy to see who developed postpartum depression.

The researchers noticed that women who developed postpartum depression exhibited stronger changes in those genes that are most responsive to estrogen, suggesting that these women are more sensitive to the hormone’s effects. Specifically, changes to the two genes – TTC9B and predicted with 85% certainty which women became ill.

We were pretty surprised by how well the genes were correlated with postpartum depression,” Kaminsky says. “With more research, this could prove to be a powerful tool.”

Evidence suggests that early identification and treatment of postpartum depression can limit or prevent debilitating effects. Alerting women to the condition’s risk factors — as well as determining whether they have a previous history of the disorder, other mental illness and unusual stress — is key to preventing long-term problems.

Research also shows that postpartum depression not only affects the health and safety of the mother, but also her child’s mental, physical and behavioral health.

antidepressants.pregnancy.giIf the results of this preliminary work pan out then a blood test for the biomarkers could be added to the battery of tests women already undergo during pregnancy.  More importantly, the results could help to inform decisions about the use of antidepressants. While there are concerns about the effects of these drugs on the fetus and their use should be weighed against the potentially debilitating consequences to both the mother and child of forgoing them.

As Kaminsky says “If you knew you were likely to develop postpartum depression, your decisions about managing your care could be made more clearly.”

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Put on the red light

asleep-at-deskWe’ve all been there, some of us more often than others. You know what I’m talking about. That mid-afternoon moment where we find ourselves crashing at our computers. Or nodding off into our notebooks.

And it’s not just our productivity that’s affected.  It turns out that acute or chronic sleep deprivation and the resulting fatigue is one of the leading causes of workplace incidents and related injuries. Most performance failures, including car accidents, occur in the mid-afternoon hours known as the “post-lunch dip.”  Typically this occurs sometime between 2-4 p.m., or about 16-18 hours after the previous night’s bedtime.

Now a new study from the Lighting Research Center [who knew there was such a thing?]  at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – the nation’s oldest technological university – suggests that there may be a way to alleviate afternoon accidents.  Their research shows that exposure to certain wavelengths and levels of light have the potential to increase alertness during the post-lunch dip. These results pave the way for a non-pharmacological intervention to increase alertness during the daytime.

Mariana Figueiro, LRC Light and Health Program director, has previously conducted studies that show that light has the potential to increase alertness at night. Exposure to strong levels of white light at night increases performance, elevates core body temperature, and increases heart rate.

light-therapy2In most studies to date, the alerting effects of light have been linked to its ability to suppress the circadian rhythm regulating hormone – melatonin, the levels of which are typically lower during the daytime, and higher at night. However, results from a previous study by Figueiro demonstrated that acute melatonin suppression is not needed for light to affect alertness during the nighttime. While both short-wavelength (blue) and long-wavelength (red) lights increased measures of alertness, only short-wavelength light suppressed melatonin.

Based on this finding the researchers hypothesized that if light can impact alertness via pathways other than melatonin suppression, then certain wavelengths and levels of light might also increase alertness during the middle of the afternoon.

During the study, participants experienced two experimental lighting conditions in addition to darkness. Long-wavelength “red” light and short-wavelength “blue” light were delivered to the corneas of each participant by arrays of light emitting diodes (LEDs) placed in light boxes. Participant alertness was measured by electroencephalogram (EEG) and subjective sleepiness (KSS scale).

The team found that, compared to remaining in darkness, exposure to red light in the middle of the afternoon significantly improves alertness.

red-light_2725743Co-author Levent  Sahin, a doctoral student  at the Lighting Research Center, was interested in this study from a transportation safety perspective, and what the results could mean to the transportation industry. “Safety is a prerequisite and one of the most important quality indicators in the transportation industry,” said Sahin. “Our recent findings provided the scientifically valid underpinnings in approaching fatigue related safety problems in 24 hour transportation operations.”

Those of us who remember the lyrics of the 1978 Police hit Roxanne – “You don’t have to put on the red light,” may need to rethink…

Even though the present results don’t fully explain the underlying mechanisms of light-induced changes in alertness it seems we could all benefit from a little red light on our desks.

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Puzzling how to get Lady Gaga out of your head?

catchy tuneYou know how it goes. You hear a song on the radio, or TV and it gets stuck in your mind. Once there, it takes root and will (almost) never leave.

Among some of the worst offenders in my experience are songs such as:

Did you know there’s even a term for these songs that won’t go away?  Earworms…yes really !

song-stuck-in-your-headIf you’ve already got “Call Me Maybe” stuck in your head, or you’re thinking “if you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it” purely as a result of reading the above, I apologize!

But while I may have been the one to have exposed your impressionable mind to such repetitive refrains, the real culprit is the Zeigarnik Effect – the  terrific-but-occasionally-traumatic tendency we have to keep thinking about tasks we’ve left incomplete.  As humans we like to finish what we’ve started.  So even when our conscious minds move on to a new thing, our unconscious minds remain preoccupied with our unfinished business, leading to dissonance.

According to music psychologist Ira Hyman, who recently published a paper on earworm science (who knew?!?)  songs function much like puzzles in our brains.  Music is catchy because its patterns and rhythms engage our minds like a crossword puzzle would.  And the music of Ms’s Carly Rae, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Gaga, apparently fall into that cognitive sweet spot of attention and inattention, making them especially “sticky.”

unhearitMusic is different from puzzles, though, in one significant way: while puzzles can be solved, songs have no obvious solution. So they stay. And stay. And stay. Haunting and taunting and put-a-ring-ing in our ears.

But…big drum roll… scientists may have found a way to stop them.  Hyman and his colleagues figured that if earworms function like puzzles, they might be vanquished by puzzles, too. Their researcher concluded that cognitive subterfuge is the best way to rid the mind of sticky songs. In other words, if you want to get rid of an earworm, you just have to fool your brain into solving another, non-musical puzzle.

The best way to do that? Give your brain an actual puzzle to concentrate on. Do a crossword. Tackle an anagram. Trick your mind out of its need to finish what it started by giving it something else – something simple, but not too simple – to focus on.

song stuck in headSolving anagrams might not always be the best way to spend your time, sure. But it’s a small price to pay.

And, even though  – this is crazy – it’s much, much better than having “Call Me Maybe” stuck in your head all day!

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Cutting Costs by Cutting Pills

Medical CostsAccording to some disturbing data released yesterday by the CDC, many US adults aren’t following doctor’s orders. And it’s not just the very young or very old, who, it could be claimed,  don’t know any better.

It turns out that adults under the retirement age are twice as likely to skip their prescribed medications in order to save money to save money.

And although spending on drugs is expected to increase an average of 6.6% a year from 2015 through 202, 20% of adults regardless of age, have asked their doctors for a lower cost treatment.

Americans spent $45 billion out-of-pocket on retail prescription drugs in 2011. But, “if you’re not insured or you face high co-payments, you’re going to stretch your prescriptions,” says Steve Morgan, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Public Health in Vancouver. “Even among insured populations, there is this invincibility mindset among the very young. Older people are more likely to adhere to chronic therapies over a longer period of time than younger.”

The study also found that 13% of those ages 18 – 64 reported not taking their medications as prescribed to reduce costs compared with 5.8% of those 65 and older.

cut pillStrategies that alter the way adults take their medications include skipping doses and consuming less than the prescribed amount. About 11% of those aged 18 – 64 also delayed filling a prescription compared with 4.4% of those 65 and older.

Uninsured adults were more likely to have tried to stretch their medications than those with Medicaid or private insurance.

But are such savings worth it? Failing to take medication as prescribed may actually increase costs to the U.S. health system, particularly if medication non-adherence results in increased hospitalizations, or complications of chronic diseases.

Anytime a patient chooses not to take drugs as prescribed, the pharmaceutical industry pharma loses sales. A recent study estimated that pharma loses $564 billion globally to non-adherence to drugs. Not surprisingly then, the industry is experimenting with reminders, to increase adherence. Nevertheless, a nudge from a text or a talking pill container might not inspire patients who are penny pinching.

I’d love to stay and chat, but I need to run to the pharmacy to refill my blood pressure meds that I ran out of several days ago!

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Forgetting Your Cold Sore?

cold-sore-cropCold sores. Annoying, embarrassing, uncomfortable. Enough to drive you crazy?

Not quite. However, according to a new study the virus that causes cold sores may be associated with cognitive problems such as difficulties with memory and thinking.

During the study researchers from New York and Miami tested thinking and memory in 1,625 people. Participants gave blood samples that were tested for five common low grade infections: herpes simplex type 1 (oral) and type 2 (genital), cytomegalovirus, chlamydia pneumoniae (a common respiratory infection) and Helicobacter pylori (a bacteria found in the stomach).  The memory and thinking skills were tested every year for an average of eight years.

Woman-With-Mug-200x300The results showed that the people who had higher levels of infection had a 25% increase in the risk of a low score on the Mini-Mental State Examination – a 30-point questionnaire that is commonly used to screen for cognitive impairment and dementia.

In other words, those who had higher levels of anti-viral antibodies in their blood, meaning they had been exposed over the years to various pathogens, were more likely to have cognitive problems than people with lower levels of infection in the blood.

We found the link was greater among women, those with lower levels of education and Medicaid or no health insurance, and most prominently, in people who do not exercise,” said author Mira Katan, MD. “While this association needs to be further studied, the results could lead to ways to identify people at risk of cognitive impairment and eventually lower that risk.”

The authors suggest that exercise and childhood vaccinations against viruses could decrease the risk for memory problems later in life.

Just one more reason for us all to get vaccinated and stay fit!

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When’s Your Time to Die?

risk of dyingWhat are your chances of dying in the next 10 years?

Obviously there are some activities that may increase your risk  such as driving drunk and active military duty in a war zone, but how about getting winded after walking several blocks or having trouble pushing a chair across the room

Turns out the latter might be just as dangerous as the former.

Researchers at the University of San Francisco VA Medical Center have recently come up with a “mortality index” to predict when a person may die.  Marisa Cruz and her colleagues have developed a list of 12 questions that can help predict chances of dying within 10 years for patients aged 50 and older.  The researchers created the index by analyzing data on almost 20,000 Americans over 50 who took part in a national health survey in 1998. They tracked the participants for 10 years. Nearly 6,000 participants died during that time.

risk of dying 2While the test scores may satisfy people’s morbid curiosity, the researchers say their index wasn’t meant as guidance about how to alter your lifestyle.  Instead, it is mostly for use by doctors, to help them discuss the pros and cons of costly health screenings or medical procedures in patients who are unlikely to live 10 more years.

That said, we know that many of our readers are “simply dying” to take the test themselves – right now.

So without further ado…here’s how it works.

The 12 items on the mortality index are assigned points.  The fewer your total points the better odds of living.

  • Men automatically get 2 points. In addition, men and women ages 60 to 64 get 1 point; ages 70 to 74 get 3 points; and 85 or over get 7 points.
  • Two points each for: a current or previous cancer diagnosis, excluding minor skin cancers; lung disease limiting activity or requiring oxygen; congestive cardiac failure; smoking within the past 2 weeks; difficulty bathing; difficulty managing money because of health or memory problem; difficulty walking several blocks.
  • One point each for: diabetes or high blood sugar; difficulty pushing large objects, such as a heavy chair; being thin or normal weight.


The highest, or worst, score is  26, which equates to  a 95% chance of dying within 10 years. To get that, you’d have to be a man at least 85 years old with all the above conditions.
healthy young womanFor a score of zero, which correlates to a 3% chance of dying within 10 years, you’d have to be a woman of “normal weight” younger than 60 without any of those infirmities.

While it’s hardly surprising that a sick, older person would have a much higher chance of dying than someone younger why would being overweight be less risky than being of normal weight or slim?  One possible reason is that thinness in older age could be a sign of illness.

Dr. Stephan Fihn, a health quality measurement specialist with Veterans Affairs health services in Seattle, said the index seems valid and “methodologically sound.”
However, he adds that it is probably most accurate for the oldest patients, who don’t need a scientific crystal ball to figure out their days are numbered.

For fans of SRxA’s Word on Health, I’m pleased to report that my 10-year mortality index is zero. Let the blogging continue!

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