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Posted: November 11, 2005

Spiritual Caregiving

New Developments on Arthritis, Hormones, and Aging Happily

(Editor’s Note: From the archives of Spirituality and Health magazine, we are pleased to bring you a short collection of important medical research updates that affect your health – both physical and spiritual.)

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Integrative Medicine Update: Acupuncture Really Helps Arthritis

Last March, we reported that Dr. Brian M. Berman, director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, was a finalist for the first Bravewell Leadership Awards in Integrative Medicine. The awards recognize MD’s who are setting the standards for blending the best of conventional care with the best of complementary medicine. The importance of this work and these awards was reinforced in the Annals of Internal Medicine which published the results of Dr. Berman’s landmark study of acupuncture and knee pain in its December 21, 2004 issue.

Dr. Berman’s study -- the longest and largest randomized, controlled clinical trial of acupuncture ever conducted -- included 570 patients, aged 50 or older, with osteoarthritis of the knee. On joining the study, patients’ pain and knee function were assessed using standard arthritis research survey instruments and measurement tools, such as the Western Ontario McMasters Osteoarthritis Index.

One hundred ninety of the patients received true acupuncture and 191 patients received "sham" acupuncture for 24 treatments over 26 weeks. Meanwhile, 189 participants attended six two-hour group sessions based on the Arthritis Foundation’s Arthritis Self-Help Course, a proven, effective model. All the patients continued to use their regular pain medications throughout the study.

By week eight, the acupuncture group showed a significant increase in function and, by week 14, a significant decrease in pain, compared with the sham and education groups. Over the course of 26 weeks, those who received acupuncture had a 40% decrease in pain and a nearly 40% improvement in function compared to when they entered the study.

Says Dr. Berman, "This trial establishes that acupuncture is an effective complement to conventional arthritis treatment."

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Aging: Happiness Holds Back Frailty

If you want a clue about your future health, ask yourself how often in the last week you felt that you were just as good as other people, felt hopeful about the future, were happy, and enjoyed life. The more often you experience those positive thoughts and emotions, the less likely you are to grow frail.

That’s the result of a recent seven-year study of 1,558 older Mexican-Americans living in five southwestern states. Researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston assessed increasing frailty by measuring the weight loss, exhaustion, walking speed, and grip strength of subjects who were not frail to begin with. The overall incidence of frailty increased by almost 8% during the follow-up period, but those who scored high in positive emotions were significantly less likely to become frail than those who did not, even after controlling for other risk factors. In fact, as the participants’ positive emotions score increased, their risk of frailty decreased.

The researchers speculate that positive emotions may directly affect health via chemical and neural responses. Positive emotions may also boost health by increasing intellectual, physical, psychological, and social resources, according to the journal Psychology and Aging.

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Latest MRI Images May Make Love Less Mysterious

"Maternal and romantic love share a common and crucial evolutionary purpose, namely the perpetuation of the species," write Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki of the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience, University College London, in the journal NeuroImage (Vol. 21, 2004).

"Both ensure the formation of firm bonds between individuals by making this behavior a rewarding experience," Bartels wrote. To test that premise, the two used Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to take pictures of brain activity in mothers, first while they gazed at photos of their young children, and then (for comparison) when they looked at pictures of other children, friends, and husbands. To look at maternal love alongside romantic love, the researchers compared the brain activity snapshots with those of an earlier study they conducted of subjects gazing at photos of beloved partners.

The researchers found that maternal and romantic love each trigger some distinct and some overlapping brain functions that are distinguishable from related feelings such as friendship. Overall, both forms of love shut down sections of the brain associated with judging the other person and worrying about his or her intentions. At the same time, they activate brain circuits broadly described as "rewards" -- some of the same cells that respond to food, drink, money, and even recreational drugs.

For all that’s been said about love’s inherent irrationality, this research suggests that the way the brain goes about building up bonds is downright logical. Now if science could only do something about the people we choose to bond with . . . .

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Rising Hormones: Why We Are More Likely to Lash Out Under Stress

Describing the relationship between stress and aggression as a "vicious cycle" now appears to be a literal description of what happens in the brain. A recent study points to a fast, mutual, positive feedback loop between stress hormones and a brain-based aggression-control center. The work was done with rats, but their brain physiology is similar to ours, so it may explain why, under stress, humans can be quick to lash out and find it hard to cool down.

In a series of experiments using 53 male rats, behavioral neuroscientists from the Netherlands and Hungary electrically stimulated an aggression-related part of the rats’ hypothalamus, a mid-brain area associated with emotion. The rats suddenly released the stress hormone corticosterone (very similar to cortisol, which humans release under stress). In another phase of the experiment, the scientists removed the rats’ adrenal glands to prevent any natural release of corticosterone and then injected the rats with the hormone. Within minutes, the rats began behaving as if they were being attacked.

The findings, published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience, suggest that even when stress hormones spike for reasons not related to fighting, they may lower attack thresholds enough to induce violent behavior. That argument, if extended to humans, could give a biological explanation for why a bad day at the office could prime someone for nighttime violence toward family members. The good news is that by interrupting the cycle through awareness or medication, the chain can be broken.


This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, www.SpiritualityHealth.com. For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see www.SpiritualityHealth.com/subs. Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at www.caregivershome.com. Contact staff directly via email at ASKspirituality@spiritualityhealth.com.

© 2005 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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