Tri-County Services

In The News

Syndicate content
Psychology, psychiatry and mental health news and research findings, every weekday.
Updated: 10 min 35 sec ago

Addressing Complex Depression and Anxiety in Low-Income African Countries

Fri, 05/29/2020 - 7:00am

People are nearly three times more likely to suffer from long-term depression if they also have high levels of anxiety, according to a new U.K.-led study of individuals with depression in Zimbabwe.

The findings, published in The Lancet’s EClinicalMedicine journal, are the first of their kind in a low-income country and, according to the researchers, interventions aimed at tackling depression in these countries must consider the implications that this complex combination of anxiety and depression has for the effectiveness of treatments.

Depression is common worldwide with 4.4% of people estimated to be affected at any given point in time. Approximately 5.9% of women in African countries struggle with depression.

“In parts of many African countries, people face situations likely to provoke severe anxiety and fear more frequently than most people living in high income countries,” said lead author, Professor Melanie Abas from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London and Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.

“These situations include poverty, living with serious infectious diseases like HIV, malaria, cholera and now, potentially COVID-19, sudden death of family members, and sexual and domestic abuse. As such, anxiety levels are already likely to be high for many people living in low to middle income countries, but anxiety and depression are often conceptualised together as one syndrome.”

Many low-to-middle income countries (LMICs), ranging from small low-income countries like Zimbabwe and Malawi to large middle-income countries like India, South Africa and China are trying to develop programs for mental health with limited resources.

There is a growing interest in low-cost programs, which can be delivered on benches in the community by non-specialist workers who provide basic education and simple talking therapies. However, this approach could mean those with more complex combinations of mental health problems may not receive the support they need.

For the study, the research team analyzed measures of depression and anxiety in 329 people in Zimbabwe who had been assessed as having probable major depression and were experiencing significant low moods.

Participants were enrolled in a randomized clinical trial of a therapy for depression called the Friendship Bench, which is delivered by a grandmother lay worker on a wooden bench and aims to train and empower people to solve problems that are negatively impacting their mood.

As such, some received the Friendship Bench therapy and some received simple education about their symptoms and advice on psychosocial issues which might be causing them. The results of the trial have already been published in JAMA.

The goal of this study was to analyze the data to understand how many people suffer both anxiety and depression symptoms and the links this has to long-term depression.

The findings show that over three quarters of participants suffered from anxiety alongside major depression, where anxiety consists of feelings of nervousness, worry, restlessness, and fear that continues for over two weeks.

Over a third of the people in the study were still suffering depression at six months. After taking into account other influencing factors such as gender, age and socioeconomic status, the study found that those with anxiety were 2.8 times more likely to still be suffering depression at six months.

The analysis suggests that persistent depression is more likely in those who also experience symptoms of anxiety and that, although the Friendship Bench is successful at helping most of these people, some who use it will still have long-term depression.

“These findings demonstrate the need to integrate anxiety screening in our work with grandmothers on the Friendship Bench,” said Dr. Dixon Chibanda, Associate Professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Director of the Friendship Bench and last author on the paper.

“By understanding who is more likely to have longer lasting depression and need more care, we can ensure they get the support and mental health care they need.”

“Addressing mental health is even more important given the coronavirus pandemic. I hope our further support of online Friendship Bench sessions and extra COVID-19-related material will support people with anxiety and depression during these tough times.”

The team highlights that many of the psychological treatments being advocated for use in LMIC countries such as problem-solving therapy and interpersonal therapy may improve common mental disorders but do not specifically target fear, avoidance, excessive worry and the re-living of traumatic experiences.

They suggest that screening for anxiety should be made available in low-income countries and that treatments need to include education about coping with anxiety and therapies specifically targeted at anxiety, such as relaxation and therapy that addresses thoughts and behaviors.

“More research is needed to understand typical experiences of anxiety in LMICs and to adapt therapies for anxiety. This must be done in partnership with local service providers. In the same way that we have adapted evidence-based treatments for depression for use in low income settings, we also need to forge ahead to develop and test culturally adapted therapies for anxiety,” said Abas.

Source: King’s College London

Mindfulness Helpful for Multiple Sclerosis

Fri, 05/29/2020 - 6:30am

Emerging research suggests mindfulness training may help multiple sclerosis patients in a variety of ways. First, training on mindfulness techniques can help individuals better manage their emotions. Second, mindfulness training may actually help the brain work better by increasing processing speed and improving working memory.

Although only a small study, researchers are impressed with the potential benefits from the easily accessible psychological technique originally associated with meditation. Indeed, discovering a psychosocial intervention that provides mental and potential cognitive benefits is significant.

Ohio State researchers found people with MS who underwent the four-week mindfulness training not only improved more compared to those who did nothing – they also improved compared to those who tried another treatment, called adaptive cognitive training.

“This was a small pilot study, so we need to replicate the results, but these findings were very encouraging,” said Ruchika Prakash, corresponding author of the research and associate professor of psychology.

“It is exciting to find a treatment that may be helpful in more than one way for people with multiple sclerosis.”

The findings appear in two journal articles: primary results in Rehabilitation Psychology, and secondary analysis in Neuropsychology.

Multiple sclerosis is a difficult illness and the most common neurological disease in young adults. Saliently, it is estimated to affect nearly 1 million people in the United States and often has a profound impact on individuals, families and friends. The disease is a life-long illness that waxes and wanes over several decades, damaging the central nervous system and leading to a variety of physical, emotional and cognitive problems.

The study involved 61 people with MS who were placed in one of three groups: four-week mindfulness training, four-week adaptive cognitive training, or a waitlist control group that did nothing during the study period, but received treatment afterward.

Mindfulness-based training involves paying attention to the present moment in a nonjudgmental and accepting manner, Prakash said. Among the practices in the sessions, participants learned how to focus on the breath and to do mental “body scans” to experience how their body was feeling.

In the primary analysis of the study, led by former doctoral student Brittney Schirda, the researchers wanted to find out if mindfulness training helped multiple sclerosis patients deal with a common component of the disease: problems regulating their emotions.

“Studies suggest that 30 to 50 percent of MS patients experience some form of psychiatric disorder,” Prakash said. “Anything we can do to help them cope is important for their quality of life.”

Study participants completed a measure of emotional regulation at the beginning and end of the study. They were asked how much they agreed with questions like, “When I’m upset, I lose control over my behavior” and “I experience my emotions as overwhelming and out of control.”

Results showed that people in the mindfulness training group reported they were more able to manage their emotions at the end of the study when compared to those in the other two groups.

This included the group that received adaptive cognitive training (ACT), which has shown promise for MS patients in other studies. This ACT program used computerized games to help MS patients overcome some of their cognitive deficits that make everyday functioning more difficult, such as problems with paying attention, switching focus, and planning and organizing.

“Our results provide promising evidence that mindfulness training can help MS patients deal with their emotions in a more constructive and positive way,” Prakash said.

In a secondary analysis of the same study, led by doctoral student Heena Manglani, participants were assessed on their processing speed and working memory, two cognitive functions that often decline in MS patients. They also completed additional measures of cognitive functioning.

Processing speed is the time it takes a person to complete mental tasks and is related to how well they can understand and react to the information they receive.

Findings showed that after four weeks of mindfulness training, MS patients showed significantly improved processing speed based on the tests used in the study — more so than those in the other two groups.

“This is an exciting finding because processing speed is a core cognitive domain impacted in multiple sclerosis,” Prakash said.

“We were somewhat surprised that this training intervention that we thought would mostly impact emotion regulation also enhanced processing speed.”

Gains in working memory were similar in all three groups and there were no mindfulness-specific changes in other measures of cognitive functioning.

One of the reasons that mindfulness training is so promising is because it is an easily accessible treatment for all patients.

“Anyone can use mindfulness — even individuals with limited mobility, who often find other training techniques, like exercise training, to be more challenging,” Prakash said.

Prakash and her team are now working on replicating this pilot study with a larger sample.

Source: Ohio State University

Autism Severity Can Change Significantly in Early Childhood

Fri, 05/29/2020 - 6:00am

Symptoms of autism can change significantly during early childhood, according to a new study from the University of California (UC) Davis MIND Institute. In fact, the researchers found that nearly 30% of young children have less severe autism symptoms at age 6 than they did at age 3.

Previous research has shown inconsistent results in terms of changes in autism severity during childhood. The general sense was that the severity of autism at diagnosis would last a lifetime.

The study, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, looked at changes in symptom severity in early childhood and the potential factors linked to those changes. It involved 125 children (89 boys and 36 girls) with ASD from the Autism Phenome Project (APP), a longitudinal project in its 14th year at the MIND Institute. The children received substantial community-based autism intervention throughout their childhood.

The research team used a 10-point severity measure called the ADOS Calibrated Severity Score (CSS) derived from the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), the gold standard assessment tool in autism research. They calculated a severity change score for participants as the difference between their ADOS CSS scores at age 6 and at age 3. A change of two points or more was considered a significant change in symptom severity.

The researchers classified subjects based on their severity change score into a Decreased Severity Group (28.8%), a Stable Severity Group (54.4%) and an Increased Severity Group (16.8%). One key finding was that children’s symptom severity can change with age. In fact, children can improve and get better.

“We found that nearly 30% of young children have less severe autism symptoms at age 6 than they did at age 3. In some cases, children lost their autism diagnoses entirely,” said David Amaral, a distinguished professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, faculty member at the UC Davis MIND Institute and senior author on the study.

“It is also true that some children appear to get worse,” Amaral said. “Unfortunately, it is not currently possible to predict who will do well and who will develop more severe autism symptoms and need different interventions.”

“Optimal outcome” occurs when someone previously diagnosed with ASD no longer meets autism diagnostic criteria due to loss of autism symptoms. In this study, seven participants (four girls and three boys) had an ADOS CSS below the ASD cutoff at age 6, potentially indicating optimal outcome. Children showing reduced symptom severity had better adaptive skills in multiple areas compared to those in the stable or increased severity groups.

Girls and boys might be characterized with different manifestations of autism symptoms. Girls might show better developmental results than boys in cognition, sociability and practical communication skills.

“We found that girls with autism decrease in severity more than boys and increase in severity less than boys during early childhood,” said Einat Waizbard-Bartov, a graduate researcher at the MIND Institute and the first author of the paper.

One possible explanation for this difference is the girls’ ability to camouflage or hide their symptoms, according to Waizbard-Bartov. Camouflaging the traits of autism includes masking one’s symptoms in social situations. This coping strategy is a social compensatory behavior more prevalent in females diagnosed with ASD compared to males with ASD across different age ranges, including adulthood.

“The fact that more of the girls appear to have decreased in autism severity may be due to an increasing number of girls compared to boys who, with age, have learned how to mask their symptoms,” Waizbard-Bartov said. “We will explore this possibility in future studies.”

The researchers also found that IQ had a strong association with change in symptom severity. Children with higher IQs were more likely to show a reduction in ASD symptoms.

“IQ is considered to be the strongest predictor of symptom severity for children with autism,” Waizbard-Bartov said. “As IQ scores increased from age 3 to age 6, symptom severity levels decreased.”

The research team could not identify a link between early severity levels and future symptom change. Surprisingly, the group of children with increased symptom severity at age 6 showed significantly lower severity levels at age 3, and their severity scores were less variable than the other groups.

The study raises several issues for further research, such as the relationships between IQ, initial severity level, and type and intensity of intervention received, in relation to symptom change over time.

Source: University of California- Davis Health

Mental Health, Mortality Linked to Work Autonomy, Cognitive Ability to Meet Job Demands

Fri, 05/29/2020 - 5:30am

Our mental health and mortality appear to be significantly linked to the amount of autonomy we have at work, as well as our workload, job demands and our cognitive ability to deal with those demands, according to a new study at Indiana University.

The study, titled “This Job Is (Literally) Killing Me: A Moderated-Mediated Model Linking Work Characteristics to Mortality,” is published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“When job demands are greater than the control afforded by the job or an individual’s ability to deal with those demands, there is a deterioration of their mental health and, accordingly, an increased likelihood of death,” said Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources from the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, and the study’s lead author.

“We examined how job control — or the amount of autonomy employees have at work — and cognitive ability — or people’s ability to learn and solve problems — influence how work stressors such as time pressure or workload affect mental and physical health and, ultimately, death,” he said.

“We found that work stressors are more likely to cause depression and death as a result of jobs in which workers have little control or for people with lower cognitive ability.”

On the other hand, Gonzalez-Mulé and his co-author, Bethany Cockburn, assistant professor of management at Northern Illinois University, found that job demands resulted in better physical health and lower likelihood of death when they were paired with greater levels of control of work responsibilities.

“We believe that this is because job control and cognitive ability act as resources that help people cope with work stressors,” Gonzalez-Mulé said. “Job control allows people to set their own schedules and prioritize work in a way that helps them achieve their work goals, while people that are smarter are better able to adapt to the demands of a stressful job and figure out ways to deal with stress.”

The new study is a follow-up to previous research the authors published in 2017, which was the first study in the management and applied psychology fields to look at the relationship between job characteristics and mortality.

The research team looked at data from 3,148 Wisconsin residents who had participated in the nationally representative, longitudinal Midlife in the United States survey. Of the participants in their sample, 211 individuals died during the 20-year study.

“Managers should provide employees working in demanding jobs more control, and in jobs where it is unfeasible to do so, a commensurate reduction in demands. For example, allowing employees to set their own goals or decide how to do their work, or reducing employees’ work hours, could improve health,” Gonzalez-Mulé said.

“Organizations should select people high on cognitive ability for demanding jobs. By doing this, they will benefit from the increased job performance associated with more intelligent employees, while having a healthier workforce.”

“COVID-19 might be causing more mental health issues, so it’s particularly important that work not exacerbate those problems,” Gonzalez-Mulé said. “This includes managing and perhaps reducing employee demands, being aware of employees’ cognitive capability to handle demands and providing employees with autonomy are even more important than before the pandemic began.”

Source: Indiana University

Kids’ Personality Traits Linked to Motor Skills

Thu, 05/28/2020 - 7:00am

A new Finnish study shows a link between children’s temperaments and their motor skills.

Researchers from the University of Jyväskylä in Finland found that children with active temperaments and attention span persistence tend to have stronger motor skills. This was a rather novel result, as the association between motor skills and temperament during early childhood is not yet widely understood. The team also found that participating in organized sports and being older were positively linked to motor skills.

The findings are published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

In general, motor skills include locomotor, ball and balance skills, all of which are present in everyday life tasks like running, climbing, throwing and drawing. Adequate motor skills enable participation in typical games and types of playing for different ages and developmental phases, for example, in tag, running and ball games.

The Skilled Kids study, conducted from 2015 to 2017, involved a sample of 945 children (ages 3 to 7) and their families from 37 different childcare centres in Finland. Children’s temperament traits and participation in organized sports were assessed using a parental questionnaire.

“Even though motor skills develop as a function of age, skill development still needs to be stimulated consciously,” says Donna Niemistö, a Ph.D. student from the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, University of Jyväskylä.

“Motor skills do not develop without practicing, thus skills need reinforcement through repetition of the skills. Motor skill development is greatly supported when the child is moving in multiple ways. In a current study we found more evidence that participation in organised sports can be useful to gain more opportunities to practise and repeat essential movements.”

Temperament and its traits refer to a child’s biological and individual characteristics, such as one’s instinctive way of reacting to his surroundings. Temperament is rather stable over time. To date, there have been very few studies focused on young children’s motor skills and temperament traits, even though in older age groups, more research is already available.

“Children who tend to have an active type of temperament, as well as children who show persistence when faced with challenges can be motivated and persistent in learning and rehearsing motor tasks. Therefore, these findings were expected and logical,” said Niemistö.

“A child with an active temperament can react more rapidly. Consequently, the child will get more opportunities to move along with increased repetitions. Without noticing, the child will also gain more opportunities to perform motor tasks.”

Furthermore, the ability to maintain attention is equally important for learning skills.

“To learn new skills, one must be able to concentrate and maintain focus even though the skill may, at first, feel challenging or even difficult,” said Niemistö.

Both temperament traits can influence the development of motor skills. Therefore, it is important that parents as well as early educators and teachers are aware of these individual factors in case they want to encourage and support their children’s motor skill development.

“For example, there is no need to emphasize for an active child to be more active,” Niemistö said. “However, with an active child, a parent could guide the child to maintain focus and attention, despite possible distractions in the surroundings.”

Motor skills were assessed with two internationally well-known measurements. The first assessment tool measured the locomotor and ball skills and the second one the balance and coordination skills of the child.

“The development of balance and coordination skills was better in those children who were described as more emotionally regulated,” said Niemistö. “On the other hand, locomotor skills were better in children whose parents had higher educational level and the development of ball skills benefitted if children had free access to sport facilities in nearby surroundings.”

Source: University of Jyväskylä

 

Exercise for Seniors in Nursing Homes Can Boost Mental Well-Being, Social Engagement

Thu, 05/28/2020 - 6:30am

Tailored exercise programs led by accredited exercise physiologists don’t just provide physical benefits for residents living in nursing homes — they improve mental wellbeing and social engagement, according to a new study.

In a series of studies, Dr. Annette Raynor, an associate professor from the School of Medical and Health Sciences at Edith Cowan University in Australia, investigated the benefits of a 12-week exercise program delivered by an accredited exercise physiologist for older adults living in three different residential aged care facilities in Perth, Australia.

According to health authorities, more than 50 percent of the 230,000 Australian residents living in aged care experience symptoms of depression.

The new studies provide preliminary evidence for the feasibility and effectiveness of an accredited exercise physiologist-led therapy program to promote residents’ physical and psychosocial wellbeing, according to Raynor.

She notes that previous research on exercise in aged care had tended to focus on the physical effects of resistance training and balance programs on fall prevention and in promoting functional capacity and mobility.

“This focus on the physical outcomes from exercise often decreases the significance of psychosocial benefits, such as enhanced independence, elevated mood, and reduced agitation that can also be achieved with exercise,” Raynor said.

She points to key findings from her research: 

  • The program led to improvements in residents’ sense of independence, autonomy, and social engagement. 
  • Residents demonstrated improvements in balance, strength, flexibility, and mobility. 
  • The individualized structure of the program enabled residents to foster personal connections and accommodated specific needs relating to cognitive and physical impairments.

While the exercise programs achieved physical improvements in balance, strength, and flexibility, other significant benefits, such as increased connectedness and motivation, were also observed, according to Raynor.

She added that staff in the nursing homes had noticed that residents were coming out of their rooms more often, joining in activities, their mood was enhanced, and they were generally more happy.

“One lady we worked with had experienced a stroke,” Raynor said. “She couldn’t dress herself or go to the toilet unassisted. Prior to her stroke she had been very independent and found her current situation frustrating. Through the exercise program she regained some independence, was able to join classes, choose her own clothes, and go to the bathroom on her own.”

“These are the changes we were looking for — an increase in strength and functional ability are great, but the extra benefits that this enhanced physical ability brings to the residents’ quality of life demonstrated the meaningfulness of the program,” she continued.

Raynor said most exercise interventions in aged care are typically not delivered by exercise physiologists, who are specifically trained to deliver tailored exercise programs.

“Because this exercise program was led by an exercise physiologist, they could prescribe and deliver one-on-one or group sessions tailored specifically to each individual,” she said. “This also meant they could build personal relationships and adapt the exercise to the residents’ needs.” 

The study, “It’s not just physical: Exercise physiologist-led exercise program promotes functional and psychosocial health outcomes in aged care,” was published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity.

Source: Edith Cowan University

Study IDs Brain Mechanisms Behind Stress

Thu, 05/28/2020 - 6:00am

A new study at Yale University has identified specific brain mechanisms behind our feelings of stress.

The new findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, may help people dealing with the debilitating sense of fear and anxiety that stress can evoke.

For the study, the research team scanned participants’ brains while exposing them to highly stressful and troubling images, such as a growling dog, mutilated faces or filthy toilets. The results reveal a network of neural connections emanating throughout the brain from the hippocampus, an area of the brain that helps regulate motivation, emotion and memory.

The brain networks that support the physiological response to stress have been well studied in animals. Research has shown that the activation of brain areas such as the hypothalamus triggers the production of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids in the face of stress and threats. But the source of the subjective experience of stress experienced by people during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, has been more difficult to figure out.

“We can’t ask rats how they are feeling,” said Dr. Elizabeth Goldfarb, associate research scientist at the Yale Stress Center and lead author of the study.

Goldfarb and her co-authors, including senior author Dr. Rajita Sinha, the Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry, conducted a series of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of participants who were asked to rate their stress levels when presented with troubling images.

The results show that neural connections emanating from the hippocampus when the participants were viewing these images reached not only areas of the brain associated with physiological stress responses, but also the dorsal lateral frontal cortex, an area of the brain involved in higher cognitive functions and the regulation of emotions.

The research team also discovered that when the neural connections between the hippocampus and frontal cortex were stronger, the participants reported feeling less stressed by the troubling images.

On the other hand, the subjects reported feeling more stressed when the neural network between the hippocampus and hypothalamus was more active.

The authors note there is also evidence from other studies that those struggling with mental health disorders such as anxiety may have a difficult time receiving calming feedback from the frontal cortex in times of stress.

“These findings may help us tailor therapeutic intervention to multiple targets, such as increasing the strength of the connections from the hippocampus to the frontal cortex or decreasing the signaling to the physiological stress centers,” said Sinha, who is also a professor in Yale’s Child Study Center and neuroscience department.

All of the study participants were healthy, she said, and in some cases their responses during the experiment seemed to be adaptive; in other words, the network connections with the frontal cortex became stronger as the subjects were exposed to the stressful images. Sinha and Goldfarb speculated that these individuals might be accessing memories that help moderate their response to stressful images.

“Similar to recent findings that remembering positive experiences can lower the body’s stress response, our work suggests that memory-related brain networks can be harnessed to create a more resilient emotional response to stress,” Goldfarb said.

Source: Yale University

Inspiring Stories From Other Women Help Overweight Moms Improve Diet

Wed, 05/27/2020 - 11:19pm

After testing a new video-based intervention aimed at promoting a healthier lifestyle among low-income moms, the researchers point to two factors for its success rate: The study was designed to appeal to the participants’ personal values and instill in these mothers enough confidence to take on the challenge of pursuing a healthier life.

The participants were women who face stubborn health challenges — highly stressed overweight low-income mothers of young children. These women are at risk for lifelong obesity and potential problems for themselves and new babies if they become pregnant again.

“I asked them during focus groups who should be in the videos, and they said, ‘We want to see us. And our children. Do not lie to us and hire professionals, because we’ll be able to tell,'” said Dr. Mei-Wei Chang, lead author of the study and associate professor of nursing at The Ohio State University.

“They said, ‘We want to see them before the change and the struggles they had, and what happened after that.'”

As a group, the participants who watched the videos and talked to their peers over 16 weeks were more likely to have reduced their fat consumption than women in a comparison group who were given print materials about lifestyle change.

“My experience with this population is that they really want to make a change. Some might perceive that they don’t want to. But they do — they just don’t know how to,” Chang said.

The researchers focused on two psychosocial factors: autonomous motivation (what’s important in a person’s life) and self-efficacy (a person’s confidence in her ability to carry out a behavior or task). Previous research has shown that poverty can lead to low self-efficacy.

Autonomous motivation differs by population. In focus groups before the intervention began, women told the researchers that they wanted to be role models for their children. They hoped to be less stressed and happier, and to maintain good family relationships.

The study recruited participants (ages 18 to 39) from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which serves low-income pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women and children up to age 5. Those eligible for the program must have an annual household income no higher than 185 percent of the federal poverty line.

The moms’ body mass index ranged from 25.0 to 39.9, from the lowest indicator of being overweight to just below the extreme obesity range. The intervention was aimed at preventing weight gain by promoting stress management, healthy eating and physical activity. This study analyzed only the diet-related results.

During the trial, the 212 participants randomized into the intervention group watched a total of 10 videos in which women like them gave testimonials about healthy eating and food preparation, managing their stress and being physically active.

In the videos, the women wore casual clothes and told their stories, unscripted. They demonstrated meal prep with familiar foods and showed that simple, practical steps — like reading food labels — could gradually lead to a healthier lifestyle.

“They talked about a lot of things I didn’t know,” said Chang, who has worked with women enrolled in WIC for about 20 years. “They spoke their mind about what was important — like how they mentally dealt with changing behavior but not losing weight. And about being afraid to fail.”

The participants also dialed in to 10 peer support group teleconferences over the course of the study.

In phone interviews, the researchers asked the mothers about what they were eating, their confidence in sticking to a low-fat diet and why they wanted to eat more healthfully.

Overall, compared to the group reading print materials, the moms who watched videos and spoke with their peers reported larger increases in autonomous motivation and self-efficacy and a more significant decrease in fat intake after the 16-week intervention.

“Essentially, they said, ‘If she could do it, I could do it.’ That’s why we used peers to develop the intervention,” Chang said.

The study is published online in the journal Appetite.

Source: Ohio State University

 

Smart Devices Can Detect Mood, Help Track and Manage Emotions

Wed, 05/27/2020 - 6:00am

Researchers from Sweden and the U.K. have designed a smart device that measures bioelectrical signals produced by the conductance of our skin. This information can indicate the user’s stress level, help sports performance and allow tracking of emotions.

Data is collected from a Philips wrist-worn wearable sensor device that also includes an accelerometer to measure movement. The researchers’ system displays information in the form of colorful spiral graphics in real time on a smart phone, as well as a recording of data, for the wearer to interpret and reflect on.

Skin conductance is a measure of how much someone sweats, indicating their emotional reactions as well as physical reactions and is the basis for technologies such as lie detectors.

The prototype visualization system, called Affective Health, was developed by experts in human computer interaction, using data extracted from sensors on the skin to design engaging visualizations on smartphones.

Said lead researcher Dr. Pedro Sanches, senior researcher at KTH – Royal Institute of Technology Stockholm, “Our bodies produce a wide range of signals that can be measured. Many useful devices that measure these signals, which we call biodata, have proliferated over the years, such as heart-rate monitors for sports.

“However, there are other areas of biodata that are yet to be fully developed, such as skin conductance or perspiration levels. Making sense of these kinds of biodata is not easy. People are unfamiliar with this kind of information and it is not clear how people would want to use it, or interact with devices that present this biodata.”

A study group of 23 people were given the Affective Health prototype to use for a month. Importantly, the researchers deliberately did not tell the participants what the devices were useful for.

Instead, they gave guidelines that Affective Health could collect information relating to both physical and emotional reactions, how increased sweating increased the conductivity, and how this was represented by different colors. Participants were left to decide the best ways of using the technology.

The researchers found that this open design stage of the study, without providing pre-specified uses, led to some participants using the system as a tool to measure, and help manage, their stress levels.

Another application, used among elite athletes, including tracking information on their training and recovery regimes. Other uses included logging information on their lives, and tracking emotions. But interestingly, few would use the technology for more than one purpose.

Said Prof Kristina Höök of the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, “We were surprised at how much the wearers’ initial categorization of the system colored how they used it. If they looked upon it as a sports tool, they did not even ‘see’ the data that spoke of stress or emotional reactions. If they looked upon it as an emotion measuring tool, they did not see the data that spoke of social processes or exertion due to sports activities.

“It was also interesting to see how some would avoid engaging with data that spoke against their ideas of their personality traits. One person looked upon himself as a calm person, but in the data, there were plenty of peaks. He just could not reconcile those with his impression of himself.”

Although the open design phase helped reveal several different practices Affective Health prototypes could be used for, the prototype lacked some of the functions needed to make it a good tool for a specific role, such as a sports training system, or as a stress management tool.

The researchers found the need for a second, more tailored, step in the design process to make devices specific to particular roles.

The research is part of the AffecTech: Personal Technologies for Affective Health, Innovative Training Network, which is funded through the European Union’s Horizon2020 program and led by Professor Corina Sas of Lancaster University’s School of Computing and Communications.

“The study revealed insights for designers of emerging wearable technologies, and in particular of biodata-based wearable devices. Design is crucially important to help users understand their bodily responses,” Sas said.

“Our results suggest the value of a two-step approach for designing new technologies that present bio-data that are unfamiliar to users. A deliberately open initial design stage allows users to develop their own ideas of how these kinds of products could be used.

“This is followed by a second step that tailors the functions of the device for specific activities, such as well-being, health or productivity.”

Source: University of Lancester/EurekAlert
 
Photo: An image of skin conductance data visualization from the Affective Health app prototype. Credit: Anna Stahl of RISE.

Sleep Problems in Stroke Survivors May Set Stage for Another Stroke

Tue, 05/26/2020 - 10:03pm

Stroke survivors suffering from sleep-wake disturbances are more likely to have another stroke or serious cardio- or cerebrovascular event compared to those without sleep disturbances, according to a new study.

The study found that having multiple sleep-wake disturbances, such as sleep-disordered breathing, extreme long or short sleep duration, insomnia, and restless leg syndrome independently and significantly increased the risk of a new cardio-cerebrovascular event such as a stroke, transient ischaemic attack, or myocardial infarction in the two years following a stroke.

This suggests that assessing and improving sleep patterns in stroke survivors could improve their long-term outcomes, according to the study, which was conducted by Professor Claudio Basssetti and his research team at the University Hospital of Bern in Switzerland.

“We know that people who have had a stroke often experience sleep disorders, and that these are associated with worse stroke recovery outcomes,” said Drs. Martijn Dekkers and Simone Duss from the University of Bern in Switzerland. “What we wanted to learn from this study was whether sleep-wake disturbances in particular are associated with worse outcomes after stroke.”

The study included 438 individuals aged 21 to 86 years — with an average age of 65 years — who had been hospitalized after an acute ischemic stroke (a type of stroke caused by a blocked blood vessel to the brain) or a transient ischaemic attack (a ‘mini-stroke’ caused by a brief blockage of the blood supply to the brain with transient clinical symptoms up to 24 hours).

The presence and severity of the sleep-wake disturbances, such as insomnia, restless leg syndrome, and sleep duration, as well as daytime symptoms such as sleepiness, were recorded for each individual at one, three, 12, and 24 months after their stroke, the researchers reported.

Sleep-disordered breathing was assessed within the first days after the ischemic stroke or transient ischemic attack using respirography, according to the researchers.

The occurrence of new cardio-cerebrovascular events was also recorded during the two years of follow-up.

According to the researchers, a bit more than one-third of the patients reported insomnia symptoms according to the Insomnia Severity Index questionnaire. About 8 percent fulfill the clinical diagnosis of restless legs syndrome, while 26 percent suffer from severe sleep-disordered breathing, such as sleep apnea. Additionally, about 15 percent reported extreme sleep durations, with a tendency toward longer sleep durations following the stroke.

“Using the sleep-related information we collected during the first three months after the stroke, we calculated a ‘sleep burden index’ for each individual, which reflected the presence and severity of sleep-wake disturbances,” explained Dekkers. “We then assessed whether the sleep burden index could be used to predict who would go on to have another cardio-cerebrovascular event during the two years we followed them after their stroke.”

The results suggest that stroke survivors with at least one subsequent cardio/cerebrovascular event have a higher sleep burden index score than patients without a subsequent event three months to two years post-stroke. Moreover, a high sleep burden index was associated with a higher risk for subsequent cerebro-cardiovascular events, the study discovered.

Although interventional trials investigating the benefit of treating sleep-wake-disturbances after stroke are needed, Duss said that sleep-wake disorders should be more systematically assessed and considered in comprehensive treatment approaches in stroke patients.

This follows recent guidelines produced by the European Academy of Neurology, in collaboration with three other European societies.

The study was presented at the European Academy of Neurology Virtual Congress in May 2020.

Source: Spink Health

Studies Probe Stimulant and Laughing Gas Abuse Among Young People

Tue, 05/26/2020 - 8:54am

Two new studies reported at the European Academy of Neurology Virtual Congress reveal the extent and risks of recreational abuse of laughing gas and psychostimulants by young people today.

In one study, researchers from Turkey reported the growing and widespread use of psychostimulants among medical students as they progress through their training.

The team looked at 194 medical students who completed an online survey evaluating their stimulant use, side effects, and academic performance grades. A total of 93 first-year students (control group) were compared with 101 fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-year students (study group).

“Non-medical use of prescription stimulants has become a growing public health concern on university campuses over the past two decades,” said Dr. Suna Ertugrul from the Demiroglu Bilim University in Istanbul, Turkey, who presented the new findings.

“Medicine is one of the longest and most competitive degrees to study for and many students believe that using stimulants helps to enhance their academic performance and live an active life.”

The Turkish researchers found that 16.1% of their study group were using psychostimulants such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) and modafinil (Provigil) compared with 6.8% of the control group. Three-quarters of the study group reported experiencing side effects, including insomnia, high heart rates and agitation. No differences were observed in the academic performance between the stimulant users and non-users.

“Our study confirms that stimulant use increases during the course of studying for a medical degree, but that this does not improve academic performance as these students believe,” said Ertugrul.

In the second study, researchers from the Netherlands detailed the neurological outcomes tied to the recreational use of laughing gas (nitrous oxide), suggesting that, for some individuals, permanent neurological damage can occur.

The recreational use of laughing gas, which is medically used as an anaesthetic agent in dental practices and during labor, is on the increase, resulting in growing numbers of patients with neurological problems reporting to specialist outpatient clinics and emergency rooms.

“In our neurologic practice, we are seeing more and more patients with neurological problems resulting from recreational use of laughing gas,” said Dr. Anne Bruijnes from the Zuyderland Medical Center in Heerlen, Netherlands, who presented the study findings at the meeting.

“We saw our first patient in 2017, and since then the number has increased steadily, so we decided to conduct a retrospective study to describe the clinical features and outcomes of the patients we’ve seen.”

According to the study team, 13 patients with an average age of 21 years were treated at the medical center between 2017 and 2019.

The most common symptoms reported were paresthesias (tingling and numbness in the hands, legs, arms and feet) and lower limb weakness. Eight patients (62%) were given a clinical diagnosis of axonal polyneuropathy, two (15%) showed evidence of spinal cord degeneration, and three (23%) showed clinical symptoms of both polyneuropathy and spinal cord degeneration (myelopolyneuropathy). All patients received vitamin B12 supplementation and were instructed to stop using laughing gas.

Laughing gas usage is thought to be on the increase with one in 11 young people ages 16-24 using it annually. Many users are unaware of potential consequences, which can also include paranoia, breathing problems and even death.

“Most of our patients made a full recovery, however, some continued to have minor symptoms and three experienced difficulties with everyday activities and were referred to a rehabilitation physician,” she said.

Bruijnes believes the true extent of the laughing gas problem may not be known, with many abusers failing to seek medical help.

“This is a major cause for concern,” she said. “Whilst this study is on a relatively small sample, we know that laughing gas use is on the increase. We now know that it causes a vitamin B12 deficiency, which can affect the spinal cord and lead to permanent damage if not treated promptly.”

Source: Spink Health

Replacing Prolonged Sedentary Time with Sleep or Light Activity May Hike Mood, Health

Mon, 05/25/2020 - 7:00am

A new study finds that substituting prolonged sedentary time with sleep is linked to reduced stress, better mood and lower body mass index (BMI), and substituting light physical activity is associated with improved mood and lower BMI across the next year.

The findings are published by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Dr. Jacob Meyer, lead author and assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University, said light activity can include walking around your home office while talking on the phone or standing while preparing dinner.

“People may not even think about some of these activities as physical activity,” Meyer said. “Light activity is much lower intensity than going to the gym or walking to work, but taking these steps to break up long periods of sitting may have an impact.”

For the study, the researchers looked at data collected as part of the Energy Balance Study at the University of South Carolina. For 10 days, study participants (ages 21 to 35) wore an armband that tracked their energy expenditure. Meyer, director of the Wellbeing and Exercise Lab at Iowa State, says the data allowed researchers to objectively measure sleep, physical activity and sedentary time, rather than relying on self-reports.

In addition to the benefits of sleep and light physical activity, the researchers found moderate to vigorous activity was linked to lower body fat and BMI. Given the negative health effects of prolonged sedentary time, Meyer says the findings may encourage people to make small changes that are sustainable.

“It may be easier for people to change their behavior if they feel it’s doable and doesn’t require a major change,” Meyer said. “Replacing sedentary time with housework or other light activities is something they may be able to do more consistently than going for an hour-long run.”

Getting more sleep is another relatively simple change to make. Instead of staying up late watching TV, going to bed earlier and getting up at a consistent time provides multiple benefits and allows your body to recover, Meyer said.

Sleeping is also unique in that it is time you’re not engaging in other potentially problematic behaviors, such as eating junk food while sitting in front of a screen.

Overall, the study found that making these subtle changes was linked to better (current) mood, but light physical activity also provided benefits for up to a year, the study found. Although the study was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, Meyer said the findings are timely given the growing mental health concerns during this time of physical distancing.

“With everything happening right now, this is one thing we can control or manage and it has the potential to help our mental health,” Meyer said.

As states start to ease stay-at-home restrictions, Meyer is looking at changes in physical activity and sitting time with potentially interesting results for those who regularly worked out prior to the pandemic.

Preliminary data from a separate study show a 32% reduction in physical activity. The question they hope to answer is how current changes in activity interact with mental health and how our behaviors will continue to change over time.

Source: Iowa State University

AI Outdoes Humans on Inferring Personality Traits From Facial Features

Mon, 05/25/2020 - 6:30am

A new Russian study demonstrates that artificial intelligence (AI) is able to infer people’s personalities from “selfie” photographs better than human raters do.

The technology was able to make above-chance judgments on the “Big Five” personality traits — conscientiousness, neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, and openness — based on 31 thousand selfies the participants had uploaded online.

The personality trait of conscientiousness emerged as more easily recognizable than the other four traits. In addition, personality predictions based on female faces appeared to be more reliable than those for male faces.

The findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, may have significant implications, as the technology can be used to find the “best matches” in customer service, dating or online tutoring.

Investigators from Ancient Greece to the Italian physician and criminologist Cesare Lombroso have tried to link facial appearance to personality, a practice known as physiognomy. But the majority of their ideas have failed to withstand the scrutiny of modern science.

The few established associations of specific facial features such as facial width-to-height ratio with personality traits are somewhat weak. Studies asking human raters to make personality judgments based on photographs have produced inconsistent results, suggesting that our judgments are too unreliable to be of any practical importance.

Still, there are strong theoretical and evolutionary arguments to suggest that some information about personality characteristics, particularly, those essential for social communication, might be seen in the human face.

After all, face and behavior are both shaped by genes and hormones, and social experiences resulting from one’s appearance may affect one’s personality development. However, the recent evidence from neuroscience suggests that instead of looking at specific facial features, the human brain processes images of faces in a holistic manner.

For the study, researchers from two Moscow universities, HSE University (Higher School of Economics) and Open University for the Humanities and Economics, have teamed up with the  Russian-British business start-up BestFitMe to train a cascade of artificial neural networks to make reliable personality judgments based on photographs of human faces.

The performance of the resulting model was more accurate than those from previous studies which used machine learning or human raters. The artificial intelligence was able to make above-chance judgments about conscientiousness, neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness, and openness. The resulting personality judgments were consistent across different photographs of the same individuals.

The research was conducted with a sample of 12 thousand volunteers who completed a self-report questionnaire measuring personality traits based on the Big Five model and uploaded a total of 31 thousand selfies.

The participants were randomly split into a training and a test group. A series of neural networks were used to preprocess the images to ensure consistent quality and characteristics, and exclude faces with emotional expressions, as well as pictures of celebrities and cats. Next, an image classification neural network was trained to break down each image into 128 features, followed by a multi-layer perceptron that used image invariants to predict personality traits.

The findings show that AI can make a correct guess about the relative standing of two randomly chosen individuals on a personality dimension in 58% of cases as opposed to the 50% expected by chance.

This indicates that an artificial neural network relying on static facial images outperforms an average human rater who meets the target in person without prior acquaintance.

Source: National Research University Higher School of Economics

Severe Childhood Deprivation Tied to Adult Neurological Issues

Mon, 05/25/2020 - 6:00am

Childhood adversity appears to have a significant impact on neuropsychological functioning in adulthood, according to a new study of adults who had been adopted as children from neglectful Romanian orphanages.

The findings, published in the journal Psychological Medicine, also show that neuropsychological difficulties may explain why early adversity is linked to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in later life.

For the study, a team of U.K. researchers from the University of Southampton, the University of Bath and King’s College London analyzed neuropsychological function in 70 young adults who had been exposed to severely depriving conditions in Romanian orphanages during Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime and subsequently adopted by British families. The adoptees were compared to 22 British adoptees of similar ages who had not suffered childhood deprivation.

As part of the study, the adoptees were asked to complete tests designed to evaluate their neuropsychological functioning in five areas: controlling their responses (inhibitory control), prospective memory, decision-making, emotional recognition and cognitive ability (IQ).

Prospective memory is the ability to remember to do something in the future, such as remembering to go to an appointment or what you need to buy if you don’t have a shopping list. ADHD and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) symptoms were assessed through questionnaires completed by the adoptees’ parents.

The findings reveal that the Romanian adoptees had lower IQs and performed less well on the other four tests when compared to the adoptees who had not suffered deprivation.

In addition, the adoptees with the lowest IQs and the greatest problems in prospective memory were more likely to show ADHD symptoms in adulthood than those without neuropsychological difficulties. The researchers found no direct link between ASD symptoms and neuropsychological performance.

The latest work is part of the wider English and Romanian Adoptees study, a collaborative research project between the University of Southampton and King’s College London which began shortly after the fall of the communist regime in Romania.

Children living in the institutions were subjected to extremely poor hygiene, insufficient food, little affection and no social or cognitive stimulation. The study analyzes the mental health and brain development of 165 children who spent time in Romanian institutions and who were adopted by families in the UK when aged between two weeks and 43 months.

“This study contributes to our changing understanding of the power of the early environment to shape brain development, showing that the effects of institutional deprivation on cognition can still be seen after more than twenty years of positive experience in high functioning and loving adoptive families leads us to acknowledge that there are limits to the brain’s recuperative powers,” said Professor Edmund Sonuga-Barke, the principal investigator of the study

Sonuga-Barke began the study while working at the University of Southampton and is now based at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London.

“The study highlights that institutional deprivation can have long-lasting effects on a range of neuropsychological functions that are important in everyday life, such as memory and general intellectual ability,” said Dr. Dennis Golm, lecturer in psychology at the University of Southampton.

“Our findings also emphasize the importance of improving the quality of care for children in institutions.”

Source: University of Southampton

Engaging Parents in Primary Care Can Improve Communication with Teens

Sun, 05/24/2020 - 6:30am

In a new study, researchers found that parent-teen communication improved after families participated in a primary care-based communication intervention. The teens also experienced less distress and more positive emotions.

The study, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, emphasizes the potential impact of engaging parents in the primary care setting to improve parent-teen communication, which could lead to better adolescent health outcomes.

“These findings underscore the promise of this parent-directed intervention delivered in primary care to promote parent-teen communication and adolescent health outcomes,” said Victoria A. Miller, Ph.D., a psychologist and director of research in the Craig-Dalsimer Division of Adolescent Medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and first author of the study.

“Given the evidence that parents have a significant influence on their children during adolescence, supporting healthy parent-adolescent relationships should be a critical part of adolescent preventive care.”

The intervention, which was developed by the research team, involved an eight-page booklet that addressed three main messages about parenting adolescents: adolescence is a time of change and opportunity, and parents matter now more than ever; teens need to remain connected to parents and at the same time develop a separate identity; and parents need to recognize and talk with teens about their strengths.

To help promote discussions about strengths, the booklet offered prompts to help parents and their teens identify and discuss the strengths they see in themselves and each other, a unique approach that emphasized reciprocity, rather than one-way communication from parent to teen.

In order to determine the success of the booklet, the researchers conducted a randomized controlled trial, in which 120 adolescents and an accompanying parent were placed either in an intervention group, which received the booklet and discussion instructions during their well check-up, and a control group, which did not receive the materials.

The teens who participated were 13- to 15-year-old established patients at a CHOP primary care practice. Parents and teens in both groups took a survey before their well visit and again two months later.

The results show that teens whose parents had received the booklet and discussion materials reported a decrease in distress after two months, while teens in the control group reported an increase. Patients in the intervention arm also demonstrated increased feelings of happiness and calm, while those in the control group showed a decrease in those emotions.

The team found that the materials had a positive impact on teens who had difficulty communicating openly with their parents before the trial period. The intervention did not, however, change the extent to which adolescents reported problematic communication with their parents or alter parental beliefs about typical adolescents being risky, moody, or friendly.

Although the intervention materials did not impact adolescent reports of well-being, the researchers were surprised to find that the parents in the control group, who did not receive the materials, reported a marginal increase in well-being after two months, whereas parents who received the materials did not.

The researchers acknowledge this could be a coincidental finding, but they propose that the materials might have raised concerns among certain parents about the status of their relationship with their teen or instigated discussions that led to disagreements or further tension.

“Given what we know about other communication interventions that have shown a positive impact on adolescent behavior, this study provides strong support for future research to further evaluate the potential impact and reach of interventions that target parents of adolescents in the context of pediatric primary care,” Miller said.

Source: Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

Middle Age Stress May Be On the Rise

Sun, 05/24/2020 - 6:00am

Even before the novel coronavirus started sweeping the globe, investigators found that life may be more stressful now than it was in the 1990s. Pennsylvania State University researchers found that across all ages, there was a slight increase in daily stress in the 2010s compared to the 1990s.

However, when researchers specifically examined people between the ages of 45 and 64, there was a sharp increase in daily stress.

“On average, people reported about 2 percent more stressors in the 2010s compared to people in the past,” said Dr. David M. Almeida, professor of human development and family studies at Penn State.

“That’s around an additional week of stress a year. But what really surprised us is that people at mid-life reported a lot more stressors, about 19 percent more stress in 2010 than in 1990. And that translates to 64 more days of stress a year.”

Almeida said the findings were part of a larger project aiming to discover whether health during the middle of Americans’ lives has been changing over time.

“Certainly, when you talk to people, they seem to think that daily life is more hectic and less certain these days,” Almeida said. “And so we wanted to actually collect that data and run the analyses to test some of those ideas.”

For the unique study, researchers used data collected from 1,499 adults in 1995 and 782 different adults in 2012. Almeida said the goal was to study two cohorts of people who were the same age at the time the data was collected but born in different decades. All study participants were interviewed daily for eight consecutive days.

During each daily interview, the researchers asked the participants about their stressful experiences throughout the previous 24 hours. For example, arguments with family or friends or feeling overwhelmed at home or work. The participants were also asked how severe their stress was and whether those stressors were likely to impact other areas of their lives.

“We were able to estimate not only how frequently people experienced stress, but also what those stressors mean to them,” Almeida said.

“For example, did this stress affect their finances or their plans for the future? And by having these two cohorts of people, we were able to compare daily stress processes in 1990 with daily stress processes in 2010.”

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that participants reported significantly more daily stress and lower well-being in the 2010s compared to the 1990s.

Additionally, participants reported a 27 percent increase in the belief that stress would affect their finances and a 17 percent increase in the belief that stress would affect their future plans.

The study appears in the journal American Psychologist.

Almeida said he was surprised not that people were more stressed now than in the 90s, but at the age group that was mainly affected.

“We thought that with the economic uncertainty, life might be more stressful for younger adults,” Almeida said. “But we didn’t see that. We saw more stress for people at mid-life. And maybe that’s because they have children who are facing an uncertain job market while also responsible for their own parents. So it’s this generational squeeze that’s making stress more prevalent for people at midlife.”

Almeida said that while there used to be a stereotype about people experiencing a midlife crisis because of a fear of death and getting older, he suspects the study findings suggest midlife distress may be due to different reasons.

“It may have to do with people at midlife being responsible for a lot of people,” Almeida said. “They’re responsible for their children, oftentimes they’re responsible for their parents, and they may also be responsible for employees at work. And with that responsibility comes more daily stress, and maybe that’s happening more so now than in the past.”

Technology may also be at fault for an escalation of stress. Almeida believes added stress could partially be due to life “speeding up” due to technological advances. This could be particularly true during stressful times like the coronavirus pandemic, when tuning out the news can seem impossible.

“With people always on their smartphones, they have access to constant news and information that could be overwhelming,” Almeida said.

Source: Penn State

Reading Partner’s Emotions Can Be Double-Edged Sword

Sat, 05/23/2020 - 10:04pm

When a person can read their partner’s emotions it can strengthen their relationship, according to new research.

But the new study also found that when anger or contempt come into play, the quality of the relationship can plummet.

In the new study, psychologists at the University of Rochester in the United States and the University of Toronto in Canada tried to figure out under what circumstances the ability to read another person’s emotions — what psychologists call “empathic accuracy” — is beneficial for a relationship and when it could be harmful.

The study examined whether the accurate perception of a romantic partner’s emotions has any bearing on the quality of a relationship, the researchers explained, as well as a person’s motivation to change when a romantic partner asks for a change in behavior or attitude.

While previous research on empathic accuracy had yielded mixed findings, the new study shows that couples who accurately perceive appeasement emotions, such as embarrassment, have better relationships than those who accurately perceive dominance emotions, such as anger or contempt, according to the researchers. The perception may be on the part of the person requesting the change, or the person receiving the request, they explained.

According to lead author Dr. Bonnie Le, an assistant professor in the University of Rochester’s Department of Psychology, the researchers zeroed in on how accurately deciphering different types of emotions affects relationship quality.

“If you accurately perceive threatening displays from your partner, it can shake your confidence in a relationship,” said Le, who conducted the research while a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

Key findings from the study include:

  • couples who accurately perceive appeasement emotions — either as the person requesting the change or the person receiving the request — have better relationships;
  • couples where either partner feels negative emotions, regardless of whether those emotions are accurately perceived by the partner, have poorer relationships;
  • accuracy in reading another person’s emotions does not increase the motivation to heed a partner’s request for change.

But why is the ability to change important for a relationship?

Even in the best relationships, partners invariably experience conflict, the researchers note. One way to tackle conflict is to ask a partner to change by, for example, spending less money, losing weight, making changes to a couple’s sex life, or resetting life goals. Yet, requesting such personal — and sometimes threatening — change can elicit negative emotions and put a strain on a relationship, the researchers said. That’s why figuring out how best to navigate emotionally charged situations is crucial to maintaining a healthy relationship, they add.

“If you are appeasing with your partner — or feel embarrassed or bashful — and your partner accurately picks up on this, it can signal to your partner that you care about their feelings and recognize a change request might be hurtful,” Le said. “Or if your partner is angry or contemptuous — what we call dominance emotions — that signals very different, negative information that may hurt a partner if they accurately perceive it.”

The researchers discovered that the type of negative emotion detected matters. If you read in your partner’s expression softer emotions, such as sadness, shame, or embarrassment, you generally enjoy a strong relationship, they said. One possible reason is that these so-called “appeasement emotions” are read as signals of concern for the partner’s feelings.

In contrast, and contrary to the researchers’ original hypothesis, simply feeling anger or contempt — emotions that signal blame and defensiveness — rather than accurately reading those emotions in your partner, may be socially destructive for a relationship. The team found that if even just one partner felt angry, or displayed contempt, the quality of the relationship tanked, regardless of whether the other partner’s ability to read emotions was spot on, or completely missed the mark.

According to study coauthor Dr. Stéphane Côté of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, the researchers don’t exactly know why anger functions in this way.

“We think reading emotions allows partners to coordinate what they do and say to each other, and perhaps that is helpful when appeasement emotions are read, but not when anger emotions are read,” she said. “Anger seems to overpower any effect of reading emotions, which is consistent with lots of research findings on how anger harms relationships.”

For the study, the researchers asked 111 couples who had been dating for an average of three years to discuss in a lab setting an aspect that they wanted their partner to change, such as particular behaviors, personal characteristics, or how they controlled their temper.

The researchers then switched the roles of those making the request and those who were asked to change.

Afterward, the participants rated their own emotions and perceptions of their partner’s emotions, their relationship quality, and their motivation to heed those change requests.

“Expressing and perceiving emotions is, of course, important for making connections and deriving satisfaction in a relationship,” Le said. “But in order to really propel your partner to change, you may need to use more direct communication about exactly what kind of change you are hoping for.”

Research has shown that direct communication, whether positive or negative, is more likely to lead to change in the long run. That said, the emotional tone you take when you ask your partner for a change is important, Le noted.

“It’s not bad to feel a little bashful or embarrassed when raising these issues because it signals to the partner that you care and it’s valuable for your partner to see that,” she said. “You acknowledge that what you raise may hurt their feelings. It shows that you are invested, that you are committed to having this conversation, and committed to not hurting them. And the extent to which this is noted by your partner may foster a more positive relationship.”

Source: University of Rochester 

Meeting the Needs of Autistic Individuals During COVID-19 Pandemic

Sat, 05/23/2020 - 8:00am

In a new paper, experts address the specific challenges patients with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families might encounter during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as what healthcare providers should know and do to ensure optimal and safe care.

The report is published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal.

“Autism spectrum disorder prevalence has increased significantly in the last 20 years. In 2004, the prevalence of autism was 1 in 166. Today the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 1 in 54 children are on the autism spectrum,” said co-author Adrien A. Eshraghi, M.D., M.Sc., professor of Otolaryngology, Neurological Surgery and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

“At a time when everyone is stressed about contracting COVID-19, becoming better educated about how to manage patients with autism will increase patient and provider safety, while appropriately helping these patients and their families.”

Eshraghi is the director of the University of Miami Hearing Research and Communication Disorders Laboratory and co-director of the University of Miami Ear Institute. He has dedicated much of his career to caring for individuals with various disabilities including individuals with autism.

The goal of this paper was to define the challenges patients with autism may face in a pandemic like this, so physicians, caregivers, and the overall health system can better anticipate and meet the needs of these particular patients.

For example, people with autism are at higher risk for COVID-19 complications, according to the CDC. This is because they tend to have immune disorders and other comorbidities.

In addition, the process of isolating can be especially hard on children with autism and their families. The pandemic also disrupts routine, which is problematic for this population. Patients might have difficulty comprehending the situation and expressing themselves.

“Those with autism spectrum disorder are not just another vulnerable population in the context of COVID-19,” said co-author Michael Alessandri, Ph.D., executive director of the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD).

“While they may share similar needs with other vulnerable groups, some are in fact quite unique. We hope our commentary begins to provide a framework for strategic enhancement and investment in healthcare, therapy, education, and family support during future crises.”

Depending on where they are on the spectrum — from extremely high to low functioning — patients with autism might have challenges with communicating, hyperactivity, and behavioral issues. Some individuals on the spectrum are extremely sensitive to sound or bright light.

Because of all these multiple challenges which may be experienced at the same time in some instances, people with ASD and their caregivers are likely experiencing greater levels of stress during this time.

If patients need medical care during the pandemic, the situation for patients and their families often becomes even more overwhelming, according to Eshraghi.

“The healthcare environment, especially in the emergency room, can be difficult and overstimulating for people with autism spectrum disorder possibly due to the crowd, sounds and lights,” Eshraghi said.

“It’s important to reduce that stress. For example, caregivers are not allowed into many ER exam and hospital rooms during the pandemic. But in the case of autism, patients need their caregivers to help keep them be calm and facilitate communication with providers.”

Eshraghi recommends that ERs train staff to recognize the signs of autism and understand how to best manage these patients. Often, that means thinking out of the box.

If the patient is running around the ER waiting room, for example, it is not because the parents don’t know how to discipline the child, but rather the child is overwhelmed because of the environment.

“Another issue with people on the spectrum is that some don’t have a concept of having to wait for their turn, so they’re impatient when they have to wait,” Eshraghi said.

At a time when it is important to wear masks, children with autism might refuse or take off their masks because of sensory issues.

Potential solutions include bringing the child and caregiver to wait in an exam room, rather than keeping them in the waiting room. If the patient keeps taking off his or her mask, provide parents with additional masks to keep the child, parents, and providers safe.

Telehealth can also be a viable and promising solution, but research is needed to develop telehealth services geared specifically toward people with autism, he said. It might actually be even an opportunity for many kids on the spectrum to use these online services, even post COVID-19.

“It’s important that providers and hospital staffs not judge those parents and avoid unintentional discrimination, simply because they don’t understand the behaviors of a person on the autism spectrum,” Eshraghi said.

A pandemic presents a perfect storm of challenges for patients with autism and their family.

“We need policies to help those people who are more vulnerable during a pandemic,” Eshraghi said. “Hopefully, this paper will bring these patients’ needs and potential solutions to light.”

Source: University of Miami Miller School of Medicine

Social Isolation Can Hike Risk of Death from All Causes

Sat, 05/23/2020 - 7:30am

People who are socially isolated are more than 40 percent more likely to have a cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke, than people who are socially integrated, according to new research.

The German study also found that people who are socially isolated are almost 50 percent more likely to die from any cause, according to researchers at the University Hospital in Essen, Germany.

During the study, the researchers also discovered that a lack of financial support independently increased the risk of cardiovascular events.

The new study was performed within the Heinz Nixdorf Recall (HNR) study, a population-based study in Germany that aims to improve the prediction of cardiovascular events by integrating new imaging and non-imaging methods in risk assessment.

Led by Dr. Janine Gronewold and Professor Dirk M. Hermann, the research for the new study analyzed data from 4,316 individuals who were recruited into the large community-based study between 2000 and 2003. The average age of the study participants was 59.1 years, the researchers reported.

The study participants entered the study with no known cardiovascular disease and were followed for an average of 13 years.

At the start of the study, information was collected on different types of social support, with social integration assessed based on marital status and cohabitation, contact with close friends and family, and membership in political, religious, community, sports, or professional organizations, the researchers explained.

“We have known for some time that feeling lonely or lacking contact with close friends and family can have an impact on your physical health,” said Gronewold. “What this study tells us is that having strong social relationships is of high importance for your heart health and similar to the role of classical protective factors, such as having a healthy blood pressure, acceptable cholesterol levels, and a normal weight.”

“This observation is of particular interest in the present discussion on the COVID-19 pandemic, where social contacts are or have been relevantly restricted in most societies,” added Professor K.H. Jöckel, one of the principal investigators of the HNR study.

During the 13.4 years of follow-up, 339 cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks or strokes, occurred, according to the study’s findings. There were 530 deaths among the study participants, the researchers reported.

After adjusting for other factors that might have contributed to these cardiovascular events and deaths (for example, standard cardiovascular risk factors), a lack of social integration was found to increase the future risk of cardiovascular events by 44 percent and to increase the risk of death from all causes by 47 percent, according to the researchers.

A lack of financial support was associated with a 30 percent increased risk of cardiovascular events, the researchers added.

“We don’t understand yet why people who are socially isolated have such poor health outcomes, but this is obviously a worrying finding, particularly during these times of prolonged social distancing,” said Gronewold.

“What we do know is that we need to take this seriously, work out how social relationships affect our health, and find effective ways of tackling the problems associated with social isolation to improve our overall health and longevity,” concluded Hermann.

The study was presented in May 2020 at the European Academy of Neurology (EAN) Virtual Congress.

Source: Spink Health 

Survey: High Stress From Coronavirus Is New Normal for Parents

Sat, 05/23/2020 - 6:30am

Nearly half of parents of children under age 18 say their stress levels related to the coronavirus pandemic are high, with managing their kids’ online learning the number one source of stress for many, according to a new survey by the American Psychological Association.

As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues and parents juggle child care, work, and schooling demands, the mental health toll on parents is growing, APA officials warned. At the same time, the proportion of Americans saying that the economy or work is a significant source of stress in their life has risen significantly, officials added.

“For many parents, it can feel overwhelming to face competing demands at home and work, along with possible financial challenges during this unprecedented crisis,” said Arthur C. Evans Jr., Ph.D., APA’s chief executive officer. “Children are keen observers and often notice and react to stress or anxiety in their parents, caregivers, peers and community. Parents should prioritize their self-care and try their best to model healthy ways of coping with stress and anxiety.”

The Stress in America 2020 Stress in the Time of Coronavirus, Volume 1, was conducted online by The Harris Poll from April 24 to May 4, 2020. It surveyed 3,013 adults over the age of 18 who live in the United States. This is the first of at least three monthly surveys APA and The Harris Poll plan to gauge the impact of the pandemic on stress, according to APA officials.

The survey found that 46 percent of parents say their average stress level related to the coronavirus pandemic is high (between eight and 10 on a 10-point scale where 1 means “little or no stress” and 10 means “a great deal of stress”). Only 28 percent of adults who don’t have children under the age of 18 report similar levels of stress, according to the survey.

With schools closed and many parents working from home while coordinating their children’s schedules, 71 percent of parents say managing distance and online learning for their children is a significant source of stress.

Parents are more likely than people without children to say basic needs, such as access to food and housing, are a significant source of stress (70 percent compared with 44 percent). Other significant stressors for parents include access to health care services (66 percent vs. 44  percent) and missing major milestones, such as weddings and graduation ceremonies (63 percent vs. 43 percent), according to the survey’s findings.

As unemployment numbers reach record highs, the economy and work have increased as stressors for Americans, the survey discovered. It found that the economy is a significant source of stress for 70 percent of adults, compared with 46 percent in APA’s 2019 Stress in America poll.

Current stress levels are similar to the levels seen in the 2008 Stress in America poll during the Great Recession, APA officials note.

Similarly, seven in 10 employed adults say work is a significant source of stress in their lives, compared with 64 percent in the 2019 survey, APA officials report.

Pandemic-related stress is having a disproportionate impact on communities of color, the survey discovered. People of color are more likely than white adults to report significant stressors in their life as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, namely getting coronavirus (71 percent vs. 59 percent), basic needs (61 percent vs. 47 percent), and access to health care services (59 percent vs. 46 percent).

Slightly more than two in five Hispanic adults (41 percent) say their average level of stress related to the coronavirus pandemic during the past month was between eight and 10. Hispanic adults are also most likely to say they constantly or often feel stress as a result of the pandemic (37 percent), as compared with white (32 percent), black (32 percent), Native American (31 percent), and Asian (28 percent) adults.

“The mental health ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic are immense and growing,” Evans warned. “We need to prepare for the long-term implications of the collective trauma facing the population. On an individual level, this means looking out for one another, staying connected, keeping active and seeking help when necessary.”

Source: American Psychological Association