Vaccination: Increasing Your Shot at a Long, Healthy Life

Vaccinations save lives. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. Today, vaccinations exist for a variety of diseases, including measles, tetanus, and everyone’s least favorite wintertime malady, influenza (i.e., the flu). But how are these vaccines developed? More important, are they safe?


A number of illnesses and diseases can be prevented through vaccination. (Photo credit: Richard Shock/Corbis)

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Sleep Tight, Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite

Bed bug populations are on the rise in the United States. (Photo by Piotr Naskrecki, Courtesy CDC/ Harvard University, Dr. Gary Alpert; Dr. Harold Harlan; Richard Pollack)

Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite is a phrase sometimes told to children at bedtime. However, in recent years, this saying has turned from a cutesy rhyme to an admonition worth repeating. The bed bug population across the United States has experienced a resurgence. What exactly are bed bugs? What is causing this explosion in bed bug population numbers? Is this something you should be worried about? And, what can you do to avoid bed bugs?

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Maintaining Youth and Preventing Disease All in a Cup of Tea

Many scientific studies have touted the healthful benefits of drinking various kinds of tea. Extracts found in green tea, for example, have been implicated in the improvement of one’s cardiovascular health and the prevention of various types of cancer. Green tea has also been shown to aid in weight loss due to an increase in one’s metabolism rate.

Declan Naughton, a professor in the School of Life Science at Kingston University in London, has found that extracts in white tea have a number of health benefits as well. Naughton found that extracts and anti-oxidants in white tea have the potential to prevent the signs of aging, aid in the prevention of heart disease and other ailments, and reduce the incidence certain types of cancer.

With regard to healthy skin, Naughton identified plant extracts in white tea that protect the structural integrity of skin proteins such as collagen and elastin. These two proteins help maintain skin’s elasticity and strength; degradation of these two proteins can lead to wrinkles and other signs of aging. Naughton discovered that plant extracts in white tea actually prevent the enzyme activities that can break down collagen and elastin.

Naughton also found that the anti-oxidants and extracts in white tea help to suppress the activities of enzymes and oxidants that contribute to rheumatoid arthritis. Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of Naughton’s results was that these white tea extracts were found to be highly potent at much smaller quantities than are typically found in a cup of tea—meaning that drinking a cup of white tea may provide even more health benefits than shown experimentally.

The results of Naughton’s research is published August 4, 2009 in the open-access journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Tamsyn SA Thring and Pauline Hili also contributed to the report.

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Scientists Report More Concerns Over Use of BPA

You may want to check out what materials your water bottle is made out of before taking your next big swig. Research indicates that using hard plastic water bottles made with bisphenol A (or BPA) may lead to reproductive and cardiovascular problems. BPA is also a common material found in other plastic food containers, baby bottles, and toddler sippy cups.

Research conducted by scientists at the University of Illinois using mice as a test subject indicates that low doses of BPA slow growth and impair the proper functioning of adult reproductive cells. Scientific studies have shown that the chemical structure of BPA is similar to estradiol, a sex hormone. Its similar structure means that BPA can bind to estrogen receptors on the surface of some cells. More research is required to determine what impact this binding of BPA has; that is, whether it impairs, mimics, or increases the activity of estrogen on these cells.

Another study, conducted by scientists at the Yale School of Medicine, showed that when female mice were given BPA in the middle of their pregnancies, their female offspring showed an irreversible change in HOXA10, a “master regulatory gene” involved in fertility. A third study, conducted by scientists at the University of Cincinnati, indicated that the presence of BPA increased irregularities in heartbeat (arrhythmia) in muscle cells isolated from mice and rats.

Human studies involving BPA indicate that the chemical is present in urine, blood, breast milk, and the amniotic fluid of pregnant women. In addition, a study of over 2500 people aged six and older, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) showed that 93 percent of those tested had BPA in their system. Typically, BPA is eliminated fairly quickly from the human body, though not as fast as once thought. Scientists initially thought that BPA was eliminated from the body within 12 to 18 hours after being ingested. However, results of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showed that the amount of BPA in the body was the same 12 to 20 hours after a meal as it was only five hours after a meal.

Though many retailers and manufacturers have voluntarily phased out the use of BPA in products such as baby bottles, water bottles, and sippy cups, controversy remains as to how dangerous (if it all) using such containers is for human health. Plastic manufacturers argue that the amounts of BPA present in human systems are well below levels that could cause harm to one’s health. However, scientists are concerned about the accumulation of BPA in the human system, given that a number of products contain BPA. In addition, animal studies have shown that fetal exposure to BPA can lead to brain, behavioral, and reproductive health issues. Given these results, many city and state governments have proposed banning the use of BPA in products marketed specifically for the use of infants and children.

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Whitening Products Safer for Teeth than Orange Juice

Dental researchers found that drinking orange juice is more harmful to your teeth than using tooth-whitening products. (Photo credit: Scott Bauer/USDA)

Dental researchers found that drinking orange juice is more harmful to your teeth than using tooth-whitening products. (Photo credit: Scott Bauer/USDA)

Researchers at the University of Rochester’s Eastman Institute for Oral Health have determined that tooth whitening agents typically used in dentist offices and at home are safer for teeth than drinking fruit juices, soda, and sports or energy drinks. Such drinks typically have a high acid content.

Dr. YanFang Ren and his colleagues used a high resolution focus-variation vertical scanning electron microscope to compare the affects of 6% hydrogen peroxide (the active ingredient in most professional and over-the-counter tooth whitening products) and orange juice on the surface of teeth.

The scientists determined that orange juice has a much more significant affect on the health of teeth than whitening agents using 6% hydrogen peroxide. They found that orange juice reduced tooth enamel hardness by 84 percent. The acidic nature of orange juice, other fruit juices, and soda causes tooth damage by decreasing the hardness and increasing the roughness of tooth enamel. Weakened tooth enamel can lead to tooth decay and other dental problems.

The longer acidic drinks such as orange juice are in contact with teeth, the more damage they cause. For example, slowly sipping a glass of orange juice over a long period of time is more damaging than drinking it in a quicker manner. One way to limit contact between your teeth and acidic drinks is to use a straw whenever possible. Doing so will help protect your tooth enamel from damage. You can also protect your teeth by brushing your teeth after meals and visiting a dentist at least once a year for a check-up and professional cleaning.

So Clean, It May Cause Allergies

Hand gels are ubiquitous, but should we use them all the time? (Credit: Custom Medical Stock/PunchStock)

Hand gels are ubiquitous, but should we use them all the time?

We try to protect our children and ourselves. Infants go through a battery of vaccines to keep them and those around them healthy. We wash our hands after touching anything that is dirty. We use antibacterial soaps and seal out germs with airtight doors and windows.

Vaccinations and good hygiene have done wonders for public health, but we might have gone too far. Allergies are on the rise and we may have our extreme cleanliness to blame.

The Hygiene Hypothesis

Researchers are trying to find out why more children have allergies and asthma. The incidence of allergies and asthma is highest in the cities and towns of industrialized nations, but is relatively low in rural areas and developing countries. The cities and towns of industrialized nations are also where vaccinations and germ control are most common. Given these conditions, scientists have started to link allergies and asthma with cleanliness.

Asthma and allergies are on the rise. Could the lack of germs in our environment be the cause? (Credit: Custom Medical Stock/PunchStock)

“It’s called the hygiene hypothesis,” says Marc McMorris, M.D., a pediatric allergist at the University of Michigan Health System. “We’ve developed a cleanlier lifestyle, and our bodies no longer need to fight germs as much as they did in the past. As a result, the immune system has shifted away from fighting infection to developing more allergic tendencies.”

Idle Immune Systems

Certain viral diseases, such as chicken pox and mumps, used to be childhood rites of passage–every child contracted the illnesses. Parents would even host chicken pox parties to expose a group of children to an infected child. That might seem malicious, but the parents knew their own children would get chicken pox eventually, so why not let their child be exposed to the virus sooner rather than later.

Children also came into contact with bacteria, parasites, and scores of other viruses that kept their immune systems active. Their bodies faced an onslaught of invaders and their immune systems responded in textbook fashion. Special immune cells would target invaders then retreat to fight another time.

Over the past 30 years, children in the United States, western Europe, Japan, and other industrialized regions have faced far fewer invaders. There are vaccines for chicken pox, mumps, and other childhood illnesses. Children commonly use antibacterial wipes and soaps in bathrooms, kitchens, and even vehicles. People wash their hands after, well, just about anything–using the bathroom, making a meal, a trip to the petting zoo, even a trip to the grocery store.

“The natural immune system does not have as much to do as it did 50 years ago because we’ve increased our efforts to protect our children from dirt and germs,” says McMorris. “Because the immune system has less to do now than in the past, it is no longer preoccupied with a potentially deadly invader. Instead, the immune system reacts to foreign substances in the environment: pollen, dust, fabric, and even food.”

This girl is suffering from hives, an allergic reaction. (Credit: Phototake Inc./Alamy Ltd)

When More Equals Less

A now-classic study looked at the incidence of allergies in farm families living in eastern Europe. Researchers found that when the families live in close proximity to animals, the number of reported allergies remained low. There seemed to be a correlation between increased exposure to farm pathogens and dirt and a lower incidence of allergies and asthma. These findings provided a compelling argument for the hygiene hypothesis.

Scientists are finding more evidence for the hygiene hypothesis at home, literally and figuratively. Today’s families have less than three children on average, which limits exposure to germs and infections. Children from larger families tend to exhibit fewer allergies while they are simultaneously exposed to more bacteria and viruses. Children that stay at home, rather than attend daycare, also tend to have more allergies and asthma because they too are not exposed to as many bacteria and viruses. Children in daycare may get sick more often in the first few years of life but they also tend to have fewer allergies.

The hygiene hypothesis is far from a theory, though. More long-term experiments are needed to determine the exact correlation between a super-clean society and the rise in allergies and asthma. Scientists also need to pinpoint why the immune system reacts to allergens so strongly and for so long, especially when it isn’t fighting off as many pathogens.

Let Kids Be Kids

McMorris concedes that it can be hard to find a balance between being clean and being too clean. “We all try to do our best with our children,” he notes. “We certainly should not step back in time and stop immunizing our children against deadly diseases. But we should use more common sense. While we should keep our houses clean, we need to be diligent about changing our furnace filters and keeping allergens like mold out of attics and basements.”

While it is good advice to keep allergy and asthma triggers out of the home, it is also good to let kids be kids. In most cases, children will do just fine when exposed to dirt and germs on the playground, at the zoo, at the grocery store, and out in the backyard. Dirt will wash off in the bathtub and a few germs could give an immune system a workout. Let kids make mud pies with a friend sporting a runny nose–it could help keep allergies at bay!

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Working Out Relieves Depression and Boosts Brain Cells

Running may help you feel better and remember more. (Myles Dumas/

People who work out on a regular basis tend to feel bad when they miss their daily exercise. Exercise has antidepressant effects and Astrid Bjornebekks rat study at the Karolinska Institue in Sweden is helping to explain why. In her experiments, both exercise and antidepressants increased the formation of new cells in an area of the brain that is important to memory and learning, the hippocampus.

The hippocampus of the brain has long been associated with reward centers for thirst, hunger, and other needs. Exercise has long been known to give people a boost in spirit! Bjornebekk has evidence that exercise can have an antidepressant effect for a range of mild to moderately severe depression. If a person is taking antidepressants for depression, the addition of exercise can add a boost to their medication. “What is interesting is that the effect of antidepressant therapy can be greatly strengthened by external environmental factors,” Bjornebekk says.

The Swim Test!

To test the affect of exercise on depression, Bjornebekk used experimental rats that were genetically engineered to behave as if they were depressed. For 30 days, one experimental group of depressed rats and one group of the control rats had access to running wheels on which they could exercise. Another set of experimental and control rats did not have access to running wheels.

To determine if running changed the mood of the depressed rats, a standard swim test was used. The more the rat is in good spirits, the more it will swim around in the water. Conversely, the more the rat is depressed, the more it will stay still in the water.

Bjornebekk found that the depressed rats that had 30 days to exercise on the running wheel were active swimmers unlike the depressed rats who did not have access to running wheels. In fact, depressed rats that got exercise had similar results to the control rats.

How Does This Work?

It is known that the hippocampus in a human brain gets smaller in depressed people. It is thought that the decrease in the size of the hippocampus causes some of the mental problems linked to depression. “The hippocampus formation is one of the regions they have actually seen structural changes in depressed patients,” Bjornebekk said.

When Bjornebekk examined the hippocampus of the depressed rats that had exercised, she found that the number of neurons in the hippocampus had increased dramatically. The running wheel exercise had a similar effect on new cell growth as compared to using a common antidepressant, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).

Both exercise and antidepressants have an effect on the hippocampus. ( Ltd)

Exercise as Therapy for Depression

Can depressed people find additional help in exercise? Bjornebekk’s study suggests that they can. It also give us a clue to the underlying biological effects of exercise on depression. The study shows that exercise has a similar action on the hippocampus as do prescription drugs on depression. Exercise, so important in many areas of our health, can help to keep us happy, too.





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Check out the following sites to read more about Dr. Bjornebekk’s discovery: