Posts Tagged ‘inflammation’

Loneliness

July 25, 2017

This post is largely based on a feature article titled “Feeling lonely? You’re not on your own” by Moya Sarner in the 22 July 2017 New Scientist.

Steve Cole at the University of California at Los Angeles says that lonely people are at increased risk of “just about every major chronic illness — heart attacks, neurodegenerative diseases, cancer. A meta-analysis of nearly 150 studies found that a poor quality of social relationships had the same negative effect on risk of death as smoking, alcohol and other well-known factors such as inactivity and obesity. Cacioppo of the University of Chicago says that “Correcting for demographic factors, loneliness increases the odds of early mortality by 26%. That’s about the same as living with chronic obesity,”

One reason is that loneliness lowers willpower, so we are more likely to indulge in self-defeating behavior. We make take risks and make bad decision from choosing unhealthy food to avoiding exercise, Feeling socially isolated also increases the risk of mental health problems such as stress, depression, and eating disorders, all of which aversely effect our physical health.

Cacioppo and Cole compared gene expression in the white blood cells of two groups. One group consisted of six persistently lonely middle-aged adults and in the other group were eight who ranked as consistently socially enfranchised. In the lonelier group, the activity of genes responsible for inflammation was ramped up.

Although inflammation is the body’s first line of defense against injury and bacterial infection, too much inflammation has been linked to cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and obesity. The lonely people also had less activity in the genes that regulate immune response to viral infections.

Too much inflammation changes the brain triggering behaviors that prime for threats. Cole says, “Inflammatory biology makes the brain a little more suspicious, vigilant and irritable.” Cacioppo and his team measured people’s brain activity while they looked at either threatening or neutral pictures and found that lonely people tuned in to social threats faster. This hyper-vigilance could explain the correlation between loneliness and poor sleep quality.

Today young people seem particularly vulnerable. This article does not mention the manner in which technology is used. Being constantly connected and friending could be driven in large part by loneliness. Robin Dunbar, at the University of London (who has appeared in five previous healthy memory blog posts) states that if there’s one factor that stands out in alleviating loneliness, it is the quality, rather than quantity of relationships. He says that this fits our evolutionary past. “For you to live, survive, work, and function well depends on you having a set of very intense close friendships, or family relationships. It turns out that this core group numbers about five close friends and family—and this is very consistent across primates, including humans.” To maintain those crucial five or so relationships, there’s an easy formula. You need to dedicate 40% of your total social effort to them, “ and that means seeing them on a very regular basis.” Small changes like pruning random acquaintances from social media, setting notifications for updates from real friends, and spending time with a core group could all act as a buffer against loneliness.

It seems the best approach is to start with the mind, rather than trying to expand you social network. A meta-analysis of interventions to reduce loneliness found that the most successful dealt with the psychological aspects of loneliness using cognitive behavioral training. The heightened sense of threat lonely people feel means they are more likely to pay attention and remember negative details and events, and behave in ways that confirm their negative expectations, perpetuating the vicious spiral of loneliness.

Research by Cole, who is investigating what factors might make people less likely to succumb to the negative health effects of loneliness, thinks that finding a sense of purpose and meaning in life can overcome the negative effects of loneliness. Cole says, “If you think of lonely people as having a world view of threat and hostility, this study suggests that you can attack this underlying psychology by becoming engaged in help others, trying to make the world a better place. I’m kind of excited about that as an obliques attack on loneliness.” All of this fits in with with the work of Victor J. Stretcher, which he describes in his book, “Life on Purpose: How Living for What Matters Changes Everything.” There have been many healthy memory posts based on this book.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Tired All the Time?

October 25, 2016

Tired all the time is the title of a feature piece by Emma Young in the 15 October 2015 New Scientist.  The subtitle of the piece is “Why fatigue  isn’t just about sleep.”  Perhaps the most obvious answer is that life is more exhausting than it has ever been.  There are the many competing demands of work and family together with the ever-present smartphone notifications.  Today’s omnipresent technology is a likely reason that we feel as if we’re running on empty.  There is a book titled “Exhaustion:  A history” written by Anna Katharina Schaffner, who is a historian at the University of Kent in Canterbury, UK.  She has documented that “people through the ages have consistently complained of being worn out, and harked back to the relative calm of simpler times.”  Throughout the centuries fatigue has been blamed on the alignment of the planets, a lack of godliness, and even an unconscious desire to die.  Schaffer says that “Freud argued that a very strong part of ourselves longs for a state of permanent  physical and mental rest.”

In the 19th century the American physician George M. Beard claimed that neurasthenia was caused by exhaustion of the nervous system and was responsible for physical and mental fatigue as well as irritability, hopelessness, bad teeth, cold feet, and dry hair.  Beard blamed neurasthenia on the advent of steam power and newfangled inventions such as the telegraph.  Schaffer says that “Beard feared that the modern subject was unable to cope with such chronic sensory overload.”

A lack of sleep is another apparent cause of fatigue.  Researchers are able to distinguish between the need for sleep and fatigue, considering them to be closely related but subtly different.  The sleep latency allows the subtle distinction between sleep and fatigue.  It is widely used in sleep clinics and is based on the idea that if you lie down somewhere quiet during the day and fall asleep within a few minutes, you are either lacking sleep or potentially suffering from a sleep disorder.  If you don’t drop off within 15 minutes or so, yet still feel tired, fatigue might be the problem.

Mary Harrington is one of the researchers looking for a tell tale biological signal.  One possibility is that daytime fatigue stems from a problem with the circadian clock, which regulates periods of mental alertness through the day and night.  This regulation is done by the brain’s suprachiasmastic nucleus (SCN), which coordinates hormones and brain activity to ensure that we feel generally alert during the day.  Normally, the SCN orchestrates a peak in alertness at the start of the day, a dip in the early afternoon, and a shift to sleepiness in the evening.   The amount of sleep you get at night has little impact on this cycle.  How alert you feel depends on the quality of the hormonal and electrical output signals from the SCN.  The SCN uses the amount of light hitting the retina to set its clock, so that it keeps in line with the solar day.  Too little light in the mornings, or too much at night, can disrupt SCN signals, and either can lead to a lethargic day.  Harrington says  “I think circadian rhythm disruption is quite common in our society and is getting worse with increased use of light at night.”  She says the if you spend the day feeling as if you have never quite woken up properly, but are not sleepy at bedtime, a poorly calibrated SCN might be to blame.  She recommends spending at least 20 minutes outside every morning and turning off screens by 10 pm to avoid tricking the SCN into staying in daytime mode.   Another way to reset the SCN is through exercise.  Studies have linked exercise to reduced fatigue.  Harrington says that exercise can make a big difference.  People who start exercising regularly often report sleeping better when some studies show that they don’t actually sleep any longer.  Quality of sleep appears to be more important than quantity.

Reducing fat levels can also be helpful.  Body fat not only takes more energy to carry around, but also releases leptin, a hormone that signals to the brain that the body has adequate energy stores. People who carry excess fat also show higher levels of inflammation.  Body fat stores large levels of cytokine, which are released into the bloodstream.  In addition to stimulating the immune system, cytokines also make you feel drained of energy.

Even if you are not overweight, inflammation could still be running you down.  A sedentary lifestyle, regular stress, and poor diet have all been lined to chronic lower-level inflammation.  There is also preliminary evidence that disruption of circadian rhythms can increase inflammation.

Low dopamine is also implicated in depression as it reduces availability of serotonin.  Since the vast majority of people with major depression report severe fatigue, it’s not surprising that depression is also a potential common in fatigue.

Harrington’s advice is not to let fatigue stop you doing something you enjoy.  Force yourself to keep at it because a potent reward could trigger the release of dopamine in brain areas linked to motivation and alertness.  Or do something stressful:  the release of adrenaline could help you overcome lethargy.  Ideally put stress and enjoyment together.