Monthly Archives: March 2017

Depression: Causes, Symptoms and Treatments

Depression, or major depressive disorder, is a mental health condition marked by an overwhelming feeling of sadness, isolation and despair that affects how a person thinks, feels and functions. The condition may significantly interfere with a person’s daily life and may prompt thoughts of suicide. Depression isn’t the same as sadness, loneliness or grief caused by a challenging life experience, such as the death of a loved one.

In 2015, an estimated 16.1 million U.S. adults (aged 18 or older), or 6.7 percent of the adult population, had at least one major depressive episode, or experienced depressive symptoms, in the past year, making this condition one of the most common mental disorders in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Depression can affect people of all ages, races and socioeconomic classes, and can strike at any time. The condition is found in twice as many women as men, according to the NIMH.

Advertisement

In a recently published report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers found that women between 40 and 59 have the highest rate of depression (12.3 percent) of any group based on age and gender in the United States.

People with depression may experience a variety of symptoms, but most commonly, “a deep feeling of sadness or a marked loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities,” according to the American Psychiatric Association. Other symptoms of depression may include:

  • Irritability, agitation or restlessness
  • Lower sex drive
  • Inability to focus, concentrate or make decisions
  • Insomnia or sleeping too much
  • Change in appetite and/or weight, eating too much or too little
  • Tiredness and lack of energy
  • Unexplainable crying spells
  • Unexplainable physical symptoms such as headaches or body aches
  • Feeling hopeless or worthless
  • Withdrawal from social situations and normal activities
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

The causes of depression are not fully understood, but scientists think that an imbalance in the brain’s signaling chemicals may be responsible for the condition in many patients. However, there are several theories about what this imbalance actually is and which signaling chemicals are involved. Moreover, a variety of distressing life situations are also associated, including early childhood trauma, a job loss, the death of a loved one, financial troubles or a divorce.

Most likely, depression is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental, and psychological factors, according to the NIMH.

Certain medical conditions may also trigger depression, including an underactive thyroid gland, cancer, heart disease, prolonged pain and other significant illnesses. Hormonally induced depression can arise after childbirth or at menopause as well.

Additionally, some sedatives, such as sleeping pills, and high blood pressure medications are linked to depression, according to the NIH.

To diagnose a person with depression disorder, doctors may ask patients about their family health history, mood and behavior patterns (such as eating and sleeping), and thoughts of suicide. They may also ask patients to report their depression symptoms on a printed questionnaire.

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is a mental health guidebook for doctors published by the American Psychiatric Association, to diagnose a person with major depressive disorder, the person must show five or more of the symptoms (listed above) for at least two weeks. The person must also exhibit a depressed mood, or loss of interest or pleasure.

It must also be ruled out that the symptoms are not caused by another medical condition, such as a thyroid problem, or due to the direct effects of a drug or medication. So doctors may do a blood test, or test the thyroid to make sure it’s functioning properly, according to the Mayo Clinic.

And lastly, doctors look at whether “the symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning,” according to the DSM.

Surveys have shown that up to half of Americans with depression don’t get medical help for their condition. Left untreated, major depression can set off a chain of social, emotional and health consequences that add to patients’ overall stress. According to the Mayo Clinic, these include alcohol or drug abuse, anxiety, social isolation and relationship conflicts, work or school difficulties, or suicide.

Depression treatment may involve psychotherapy therapy, medications, or a combination of the two.

Medication: Prescription drugs, called antidepressants, help alter mood by affecting naturally occurring brain chemicals. There are several categories of antidepressants, but doctors often start with a class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and may try other medications if the patient’s condition didn’t improve.

SSRIs target the brain’s serotonin, a signaling chemical (neurotransmitter) that studies have found to be involved in depression. This class of medication includes fluoxetine (commonly known as Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), escitalopram (Lexapro) and citalopram (Celexa). Side effects, which are usually temporary, include changes in sexual desire, digestive problems, headache, insomnia and nervousness.

Other classes of antidepressants include serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), Norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitors (NDRIs), Tricyclic antidepressants, and Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).

Medications take time — usually 2 to 4 weeks — to work, and often symptoms such as appetite, concentration problems and sleep improve before people may notice mood changes, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Psychotherapy: Also known as talk therapy or counseling, this treatment has been shown to help some patients with depression. Several studieshave suggested that combining psychotherapy and medication together works best for treating people with severe depression. Different types of psychotherapy include cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helps a person change negative thought patterns and replace them with healthier ones, as well as interpersonal therapy, which is designed to help someone understand and work through difficult relationships, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Another form of psychotherapy is problem-solving therapy, which involves coming up with realistic solutions to cope with stressful situations.

How to Protect Yourself from Cold and Flu in 2017

In 2017, Live Science is bringing our readers a monthly series on personal health goals. We’ll give you tips and tricks for reaching those goals, based on the advice we’ve gathered from the countless health experts we’ve interviewed. Each month, we’ll focus on a different goal, and the goal for September is “avoiding colds and flu.” Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to connect with other readers who are working toward these goals.

When the weather starts to cool down and you feel a nip in the air, it means that cold and flu season are just around the corner. Although there is no sure-fire way to avoid catching a cold or the flu, there are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk of these illnesses this fall and winter. On this page, we’ve rounded up the most important information from Live Science on how to help prevent cold and flu, and what to do if you get sick.

Cold and flu infections both cause similar symptoms, and they are both more common in the winter months compared to other times of the year. But these illnesses have important differences. For example:

  • Only influenza viruses cause the flu, while many different viruses can cause colds.
  • There is a vaccine to prevent the flu, while there is no vaccine to prevent the common cold.
  • Adults have an average of two to three colds a year, but only get the flu about twice a decade. Kids get colds and the flu more frequently.

Still, when you come down with the winter sniffles, you may be wondering — is this the flu, or a really bad cold? It may be hard to tell the difference based on symptoms alone, but there are some clues. Here are some ways you may be able to tell if you have a cold or the flu

According to the CDC, getting an annual flu shot is the best way to protect yourself from the flu. The flu vaccine is recommended for everyone ages 6 months and older.

Check out Live Science’s comprehensive flu shot page to learn about the types of vaccines, side effects and more.

Even more flu shot facts:

  • When’s the Best Time to Get the Flu Vaccine?
  • ‘Microneedle’ Patch Promises Painless Flu Vaccine
  • Flu Vaccine and Narcolepsy: New Findings May Explain Link
  • Flu Shots Keep Older People Out of the Hospital
  • 6 Flu Vaccine Myths

Getting a flu shot may reduce your risk of catching the flu, but it doesn’t protect you from colds. Still, there are things you can do that may lower your risk of catching colds, and provide additional protection from the flu. Here are some cold and flu prevention tips:

  1. Wash your hands often. Use soap and water, and scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. You’d be surprised at how many people don’t wash their hands properly.
  2. If soap and water aren’t available, use alcohol-based hand sanitizerthat contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
  3. Get enough sleep. Studies have found that not getting enough sleep is linked with an increased risk of catching a cold or the flu.
  4. Exercise regularly. Working out on a regular basis may lower your risk of catching a cold, or lower your duration of cold symptoms, according to a 2010 study.
  5. Stand back: Studies have found that flu virus particles exhaled by a sick person travel at least six feet.
  6. Consider wearing a mask. If you’re taking care of a person sick with a cold or the flu, wearing a surgical mask may reduce your risk of catching the illness.

Sleep Deprived Sleepers May Be High Risk of Dementia

Consider it another strike against not getting enough sleep: A new study finds that getting too little REM sleep may be linked to a higher risk of dementia later in life.

REM, or “rapid eye movement,” sleep is one of four sleep stages, which also include two stages of light sleep and a stage of deeper sleep called slow-wave sleep. REM sleep is characterized by vivid dreams and high levels of brain activity, similar to the brain’s state when its awake. Humans typically cycle through several periods of REM sleep between the other stages of sleep each night.

In the new study, published today (Aug. 23) in the journal Neurology, researchers found that the people who developed dementia had gotten significantly less REM sleep when examined overnight years earlier compared with the people who didn’t develop cognitive problems. [Get Better Sleep in 2017]

The study does not prove that low levels of REM sleep cause dementia; rather, it shows an association between the two, said lead study author Matthew Pase, a senior research fellow at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia.

Pase offered several ideas for how REM sleep and dementia might be linked.

“On one hand, REM may help protect connections within the brain that are vulnerable to damage with aging and Alzheimer’s disease,” Pase told Live Science. “On the other hand, perhaps lower REM is caused by other potential dementia risk factors, such as heightened anxiety and stress. This requires further study.”

Doctors have long known that poor sleep can result in mental and emotional health problems. But details about which types of sleep are associated with dementia and long-term cognitive decline have been lacking. More than 10 percent of Americans over age 65 have some form of dementia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the new study, the researchers looked at more than 320 people in the U.S. whose average age was 67. These people were already part of an ongoing, larger study on heart health. The researchers collected sleep data approximately half way through the as they followed the participants for an average of 12 years. During that time, 32 people (about 10 percent) were diagnosed with some form of dementia; among those 32 people, 24 were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

The people who developed dementia spent an average of 17 percent of their sleep time in REM sleep, compared with 20 percent for those who did not develop dementia. The researchers found that for every 1-percent reduction in REM sleep, there was a 9-percent increase in the risk of dementia. The results held up even after the researchers adjusted for other factors that could affect dementia risk or poor sleep, such as heart disease, depression and medication use.

Also, the time that the people spent in stages of non-REM sleep was not associated with dementia risk, the study found. [5 Surprising Sleep Discoveries]

“The study is valuable, since it has identified inadequate REM sleep as correlating with dementia risk,” said Dr. Pinky Agarwal, a neurologist at EvergreenHealth in Washington and a professor of neurology at the University of Washington. Agarwal was not part of the study.

“The current [scientific] literature is mixed and mostly identifies inadequate ‘slow wave sleep’ [a type of deep, non-REM sleep] as a risk, but these have been much shorter-duration studies,” Agarwal told Live Science. Because REM sleep is thought to be related to how the brain processes and retains memories, the new findings make sense, she said; dementia is, in part, marked by memory problems. The research points to the need for closer follow-up to recognize signs of dementia in patients with decreased REM sleep, she added.

Indeed, Pase noted that his research group would like to understand why a lower amount of REM sleep is tied to an increased risk of dementia. He hopes to tap into a larger sample of data to examine the relationship between sleep and signs of accelerated brain aging, such as poor thinking, memory problems and loss of brain volume.

This further research might provide more information about how getting less REM sleep, or even poor sleep in general, could lead to the development of dementia, Pase said.

How Stress in Your Brain Could Lead to Stress in Your Body

The patterns in your brain may predict how your body physically reacts to stressful situations, a new study finds.

That’s important, because some people have stronger physical reactions to stress than others: Their hearts beat faster, and their blood pressure rises more, than you’d see in less “reactive” individuals, according to the study. And this “exaggerated” stress response can have negative consequences in the long run. [10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Brain]

People whose blood pressure shoots up in stressful situations are more likely to develop high blood pressure in the future, and they may also have an increased risk of death from heart disease, according to the study, published today (Aug. 23) in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

“It’s the people who show the largest stress-related cardiovascular response who are at the greatest risk for poor cardiovascular health, and understanding the brain mechanisms for this may help to reduce their risk,” senior study author Peter Gianaros, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, said in a statement.

To study this “brain-body” relationship, the researchers performed brain scans on more than 300 adults while also monitoring their physical responses, such as blood pressure and heart rate. During the scans, the participants were asked complete mental tests that were designed to create a stressful experience. For example, the people in the study had to answer questions under strict time constraints.

Next, the researchers used artificial intelligence analyze the results. They found that the people who reacted more strongly to stress physically — in other words, the people whose blood pressure and heart rates rose higher — showed specific patterns of activity in their brains. Indeed, the A.I. reliably predicted how a person’s blood pressure and heart rate would change based on the person’s brain activity during the stress test, the researchers said.

In addition, activity in certain areas of the brain was linked to greater stress responses in the body, the researchers found. For example, heightened activity in areas of the brain that determine whether information from the world around you is threatening was linked to a greater physical response.

The study had several limitations, the researchers said. For example, the people included in the study were healthy, middle-age adults who were at low risk for heart disease, so the findings may not apply to less-healthy individuals.

In addition, the study didn’t prove that increased activity in certain parts of the brain in response to stress causes physical changes in the body; rather, the research found an association between the two.

Gianaros noted that more research is needed to explore the connections between brain activity and stress responses in the body.

“This kind of work is proof-of-concept, but it does suggest that, in the future, brain imaging might be a useful tool to identify people who are at risk for heart disease or who might be more or less suited for different kinds of interventions, specifically those that might be aimed at reducing levels of stress,” Gianaros said.