Thursday, January 16, 2014

Practicing Mindfulness Helps You Stay On Track

"Mndfulness is a mental state in which a person pays attention to the present experience without ruminating about the past or worrying about the future."

Few situations present as much distraction and time pressure as the college experience. In this environment, attention can be elusive and difficult to sustain even when it is attained. This lack of concentration interferes with learning and is associated with stress, which tends to increase during the academic term.

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A form of mental training called mindfulness training, specifically designed for undergraduate students, shows promise as a tool to train attention and improve learning during the academic semester, according to a new study by a team of University of Miami researchers.

The study is the first to examine the incidence of mind wandering and the impact of mindfulness training, at different time points in the academic calendar. The findings are published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

"This work was the first to integrate mindfulness training into the academic semester by embedding training in students' course schedules, hosting training in the academic building to best accommodate their schedules, and providing a supervised space for mindfulness exercises," says Amishi Jha, associate professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, and principal investigator of the study.

Mindfulness is a mental state in which a person pays attention to the present experience without ruminating about the past or worrying about the future. Mindfulness training (MT) emphasizes attention-building exercises and learning to observe the activity of the mind, according to Jha.

For the study, 58 UM undergraduate students participated in an experiment testing the effectiveness of a seven-week mental training program designed to tame the mind wandering and increase focus.

The students were assigned to either the MT group or a control group, who received no training. All participants completed two testing sessions, one at the start of the semester and again at the end of the training interval, as final exams neared. Attention was measured by examining overall accuracy and other performance measures in a computer task of sustained attention. The students also self-reported the incidence of mind wandering during the task.

The results indicate that the groups did not differ at the start of the semester. However, by the end of the training interval, the control group showed diminished attention and reported increased mind wandering, while those who participated in the program showed significant improvements in attention and no increase in reported mind wandering.
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Story Source:  Original article written by Marie Guma-Diaz and Annette Gallagher.  Alexandra B. Morrison, Merissa Goolsarran, Scott L. Rogers, Amishi P. Jha. Taming a wandering attention: short-form mindfulness training in student cohorts. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2014

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Music and the Arts Fight Depression, Promote Health

If you paint, dance or play a musical instrument -- or just enjoy going to the theater or concerts -- it's likely that you feel healthier and are less depressed than people who don't.

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The findings are drawn from studies conducted for the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's (NTNU) Nord-Trøndelag Health Study, or HUNT, which used questionnaires, interviews, clinical examinations and the collection of blood and urine samples to assemble detailed health profiles of 48,289 participants.

"There is a positive relationship between cultural participation and self-perceived health for both women and men, "says Professor Jostein Holmen, a HUNT researcher who presented the findings at a Norwegian health conference in Stjørdal in November, 2009. "For men, there is also a positive relationship between cultural participation and depression, in that there is less depression among men who participate in cultural activities, although this is not true for women."

But what surprised the medical researcher was that these findings held true no matter the individual's socio-economic status -- whether truck driver or bank president, participating in some way in the arts, theater or music, as player or participant, had a positive effect on that individual's sense of health and well-being.

The new findings were controlled for socioeconomic status, chronic illness, social capital, smoking and alcohol. However, Holmen also reported that the same sense of well-being in people who participate in cultural activities that seemed to protect them from depression did not appear to have the same beneficial effect on anxiety.
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Story Source: The above story is based on materials provided by The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)  (2009, December 16). Music and the arts fight depression, promote health. ScienceDaily.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Health & Wealth Connected?

"Health and wealth may be more strongly connected than previously thought."

We ring in the New Year with hopes of being healthy, wealthy, and wise. A new study from researchers John W. Ayers of San Diego State University and Benjamin Althouse of the Santa Fe Institute and their colleagues suggests that health and wealth may be more strongly connected than previously thought.

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The group examined Americans' Google search patterns and discovered that during the recent Great Recession, people searched considerably more frequently for information about health ailments. The kinds of problems indicated by the queries weren't life threatening, but they could keep someone in the bed a few days, like ulcers, headaches, and back pain.

In total, the team found there were more than 200 million excess queries of this kind during the Great Recession than expected.

"While it's impossible to uncover the motives for increased searches, they likely indicate a person being ill, and ill enough to seek out online information or remedies," Ayers said. The same group previously published a report showing that queries for anxiety and depression also increased substantially during the Great Recession.

Revealing searches
In the new study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the team began with five root words indicative of the most common health problems: "chest," "headache," "heart," "pain," and "stomach." Controlling for search terms that might return false positives (such as "tool chest"), the researchers measured how frequently people in the United States searched for queries involving those root terms during the Great Recession, here defined as December 2008 through 2011, and came up with a list of 343 symptom queries.

Next, the team calculated what the search volume of those symptoms' queries would have been if there had been no Great Recession -- what statisticians call synthetic controls) -- correcting for such variables as the growing availability of the Internet and increased usage.

Comparing those values to people's actual search behavior revealed that certain symptoms were searched for with far more frequency during the recession. Searches for "stomach ulcer symptoms" were 228 percent higher than would be expected and "headache symptoms" were 193 percent higher, representing about 1.48 and 1.52 million excess searches.

Aggregating the symptoms into themes, the researchers found that several broad categories of health concerns stuck out: Queries about headaches were 41 percent higher than expected; for hernias, 37 percent; for chest pain, 35 percent; and for heart arrhythmias, 32 percent. Back pain, gastric pain, joint pain and toothache also popped up with greater-than-expected frequency among the search terms.

"The Great Recession undoubtedly got inside the body via the mind," Ayers said. "Job loss or losing a home touched nearly everyone, directly or indirectly. But those who got away unscathed were probably not immune to the Great Recession's health implications, with many thinking 'I could be next'."

Superior surveillance
Althouse, the study's lead author, said that by monitoring health-related search terms, public health officials could recognize burgeoning epidemics and direct resources to help people reduce their stress or take other precautionary measures. This technique is quicker, cheaper, and more efficient than traditional survey based methodologies, he added.

"In fact, many current approaches to public health surveillance are both slow and expensive," Althouse said. "Internet search queries may be a significantly more precise metric, suggesting precisely when and how the population's health could be changing."

"By looking for these more-frequent-than-expected search terms and matching them up to world events, public health officials can conduct population health surveillance on a truly unprecedented scale," added Mark Dredze, a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University and one of the study's coauthors.

The team pointed out that their approach could be used to immediately improve public health. For example, search engines like Google could interpret these searches and suggest links to evidence-based, Internet-based treatment options in coordination with health agencies.

"The web is a stigma-reducing and cost-reducing venue to reach patients who search for, but do not otherwise receive, treatment because they cannot afford medications or copayments," said Jon-Patrick Allem, another of the study's coauthor and a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine.

Matthew Childers, study coauthor and professor of political science at the University of Georgia, added that their findings carry political implications, as well.

"If you just recently had your unemployment benefits slashed, in addition to becoming poorer, you just might end up sicker too," Childers said. "Of the more than $800 billion allocated by the stimulus package, only $9 billion was spent on health promotion, and our study shows how health can have greater salience in economic debates going forward."
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Story Source:  Original article was written by Michael Price:  Benjamin M. Althouse, PhD, ScM, Jon-Patrick Allem, MA, Matthew A. Childers, PhD, MPP, Mark Dredze, PhD, John W. Ayers, PhD, MA. Population Health Concerns During the United States ’ Great Recession. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, January 2013