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Am Fam Physician. 2006;73(12):2113

Could there be a “cure” for debilitating phobias? According to new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the stress hormone cortisol may help people deal with fear and anxiety. Forty people with social phobia and 20 with spider phobia were given an oral dose of cortisol one hour before being exposed to situations involving their fears (i.e., public speaking for those with social phobia or a picture of a spider for those with spider phobia). After receiving cortisol, participants in both groups reported feeling less fear and anxiety when faced with a frightening situation, and those with spider phobia actually experienced a decline in fear during six exposures over a two-week period. Study authors suggest that cortisol lessens anxiety because it blocks the retrieval of painful emotional memories. (Proc Natl Acad Sci, April 4, 2006)

If you think you don’t get enough sleep, you’re not alone. A study released by the Institute of Medicine reports that as many as 70 million Americans have chronic sleeping problems, and more than one in 10 has chronic insomnia. The institute reports that loss of sleep has become more prevalent in recent decades because of increased time spent in front of televisions and computers and longer workdays. Fatigue costs businesses an estimated $150 billion a year in lost productivity, and lack of sleep contributes to a variety of health problems. Researchers recommend more training for medical students on the estimated 80 different sleep disorders and further research on the subject to adequately diagnose patients. (Institute of Medicine press release, April 4, 2006)

Can feeling lonely be a health risk? According to study findings published in Psychology and Aging, loneliness is as much a risk factor for hypertension as obesity and lack of exercise. Researchers interviewed 229 people between the ages of 50 and 68 to determine each person’s perceived degree of loneliness and other psychosocial and cardiovascular risk factors. They found that lonely people had blood pressure readings up to 30 points higher than people who were not lonely. The results were consistent even when other negative emotional states were taken into account. The risk of hypertension in lonely people also appeared to increase with age. Researchers believe that loneliness is on the rise in the United States, and they suggest interventions to reduce the impact of loneliness on blood pressure in older adults. (Psychol Aging, April 2006)

Sex sells, especially to teenagers. A study published in Pediatrics shows that teenagers exposed to media having high sexual content are more than twice as likely to have sex by age 16 than those exposed to less. Researchers surveyed more than 1,000 black and white students 12 to 14 years of age from three North Carolina counties. They calculated each teen’s “sexual media diet” (SMD) based on survey responses and measurements of sexual content in television, movies, music, and magazines to which the teens were frequently exposed. The teens were interviewed again two years later. The results showed that teens with the highest SMD at the first survey were 2.2 times more likely to have engaged in sexual intercourse two years later than those with lower SMDs. The relationship was not as strong for black teens as it was for whites. Teens of both races whose parents discouraged them from engaging in sexual intercourse were less likely to have had sex by age 16 than those who perceived less parental disapproval, causing study authors to recommend more parental involvement in sex education. (Pediatrics, April 2006)

Can starving yourself help you live longer? Previous studies have shown that putting rats on restricted-calorie diets increases their life span, so researchers tested the hypothesis on humans in a study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study included 48 overweight people divided into four groups: one group ate normally and the other three were put on diets that ranged from a 12.5 percent calorie reduction to no more than 890 calories per day. Over six months, the people on restricted-calorie diets lowered their weight and body fat mass. They also decreased fasting insulin levels, body temperature, energy expenditure, and DNA damage, which are known biomarkers of longevity. Study authors say the results shed light on the effect of diet on longevity, but further research is needed. (JAMA, April 5, 2006)

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