Care and Connection | NIH News in Health

August 2018






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Loneliness Affects All Ages

Human beings are social creatures. Feeling like we’re part of a community helps us thrive. But we sometimes have a hard time making and keeping the relationships that sustain us. Many Americans report feeling lonely for long periods of time. Connections with others are important for your health.

Social isolation and loneliness can both cause problems. “Isolation is about whether other people are physically there or not. Being lonely is about not feeling connected to others. You can feel lonely in a room full of people,” explains Dr. Steve Cole, an NIH-funded researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies loneliness.

Loneliness not only feels bad, it may also be harmful to your health. People who feel lonely are at higher risk of many diseases. These include heart disease, high blood pressure, and Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness may also increase the risk of death for older adults.

Some of the increased risk of disease may come from changes in behavior. People who feel isolated may not have friends or family encouraging them to eat right, exercise, or see a doctor. New research suggests that loneliness can also directly harm our health.

“Lonely people have differences in their biology that make them more vulnerable to disease,” Cole explains. He and colleagues have studied how loneliness affects the immune system, your body’s disease fighting system. They found that loneliness may alter the tendency of cells in the immune system to promote inflammationHeat, swelling, and redness caused by the body’s protective response to injury or infection.. Inflammation is necessary to help our bodies heal from injury. But when it goes on too long, it may raise the risk of chronic diseases.

People who feel lonely may also have weakened immune cells that have trouble fighting off viruses. “So that leaves lonely people more vulnerable to a variety of infectious diseases,” Cole adds.

People often associate loneliness with getting older. But you can feel lonely at any age. A recent survey found that young Americans are more likely to feel lonely than older adults. Some research suggests that social media tools and resources are preventing younger people from connecting in real life, Cole says. However, more studies are needed to know whether this is true.

It can be hard for people to talk about loneliness, Cole explains. They may feel like something is wrong with them, even though feeling lonely happens to almost everyone at some point.

NIH-funded researchers are looking into ways to help people break the cycle of loneliness. Studies have shown that feelings of loneliness can be reduced by helping others, Cole says. Caregiving and volunteering to help others may therefore help people to feel less lonely.

Having a sense of purpose in life may be another way to fight the effects of loneliness. Research has found that having a strong sense of mission in life is linked to healthier immune cells. “And when you start to pursue a goal that’s important to you, you almost always have to cooperate with others to do that,” Cole says. “That helps bring people together.”

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Bionic Movements | NIH News in Health

Connecting Mind and Machine

When you lose the use of a limb, even the simplest of daily tasks can turn into a challenge. High-tech devices can help restore independence. New technologies are even making it possible to connect the mind to an artificial limb. These artificial limbs are called bionic prosthetic devicesDevices that replace a body part..

“To get back some of that lost function, you need some sort of assistive tool or technology to either enhance recovery or restore the capability of the anatomy that’s missing now,” says Dr. Nick Langhals, who oversees NIH-supported prosthetic engineering research.

This fast-moving research aims to improve people’s lives by restoring both movement and feeling.

Prosthetic Control

Traditional prosthetic devices use a body-powered harness to control a hand device. These are easy to use. With a shrug of your shoulder, the prosthetic hand or hook opens. With the release of your shoulder, the prosthesis closes. Through the feel of the cable tension across your shoulders, you know whether the prosthesis is open or closed without looking at it.

Newer, motorized hands are not as easy to learn how to use. To close the device, you contract the remaining muscles in your arm. An electrical sensor placed over those muscles detects the contraction and tells the hand to close. Since the original muscles that controlled the hand are gone, the remaining muscles must be retrained. Learning how to open and close a prosthetic hand in this way takes some time. And you still need to watch the device to know what it’s doing.

To make motorized hands more intuitive to use, researchers are developing ways to detect the electrical signals in your brain and nervesSpecial tissues that carry signals between your brain and other parts of your body. to help control advanced bionic prosthetics. This can be done many ways, such as by implanting tiny sensors in the parts of the brain that control movement or by attaching small electrodesTools that are used to carry electricity to or from different parts of the body. to the amputated nerves. Either way, the patients simply think about moving their hand and computers translate it into the movements of a bionic prosthetic hand.

Two-Way Communication

To regain a sense of wholeness, a person with a bionic limb needs to do more than control the device. They also need to “feel” what it’s doing. New bionic devices can send sensation from the device back to the brain. This allows a person with a bionic device to feel like they are using their own limb.

“The most important thing about the research that we’re doing is this sense of wholeness,” says Dr. Paul Marasco, a biomedical engineering researcher at Cleveland Clinic.

One way to help a person feel their prosthetic hand is to move the remaining sensory nerves from the amputated hand to the skin of the upper arm. You can then use small robots to press on the skin of the upper arm when the hand is touching something.

Marasco’s team devised a similar system to restore the feeling of movement, too. The bionic hand sends signals to a computerized control system outside of the body. The computer then tells a small robot worn on the arm to send vibrations to the arm muscle. These vibrations deep in the muscle create an illusion of movement that tells the brain when the hand is closing or opening.

Marasco’s team tested this feedback system with several people who had a hand prosthesis. The study participants were able to operate the bionic hand and know what position it was in just as well as with their natural hand. With this feedback system, they didn’t have to look at the bionic hand to know when it was open or closed, or when it was reaching for an object.

“We fool their brains into believing that the prosthesis is actually part of their body,” Marasco says. This advancement directly taps into the way that the brain senses movement, which helps improve the two-way communication between prosthetic device and mind.

Wearable Robots

Research teams are also trying to help people who have lost the use of their legs. By wearing a robotic device called an exoskeleton, some people with leg paralysis have been able to regain the ability to walk.

A group led by Dr. Thomas Bulea, a biomedical engineer at the NIH Clinical Center, created a wearable exoskeleton for children with cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is a brain disorder that makes it hard to stand up straight, balance, and walk. The motorized, robotic exoskeleton changes the way the children walk by helping them straighten their knees at key points during the walking cycle. While the exoskeleton can make walking easier, children must be able to navigate at least small distances on their own to use it.

“The ultimate goal really is to have a person wear this outside of our lab, or even outside of the clinical setting,” Bulea explains. “To do that you have to have a really robust control system that makes sure that the robot is behaving properly in all different kinds of environments.”

The team is now writing software so that the robotic device can be worn while navigating bumps in the terrain and other real-world conditions.

Finding the Right Device

“What I try to emphasize to people is that there are a lot of potential tools and technologies at our disposal to try and make people better, and they should explore them and consider embracing them,” Langhals says.

Many types of prosthetic devices are now in development. If you’d like to find a clinical study to help test one, you can search for one in clinicaltrials.gov, a database of both NIH-supported and other studies around the world.

If you’re interested in taking part in a study, talk with your doctor about the possible risks and benefits. See the Ask Your Doctor box for questions to ask.

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20-Minute Tough Total Body Workout With Obi

Build strength and burn calories with this full-body routine led by wellness coach Obi Obadike.

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5-Minute Easy Abs Workout

Build stronger ab muscles with this simple 5-minute routine.

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The Perfect 7-Minute Workout

Some of the latest scientific research says that high intensity interval training is one of the best training methods for fat loss. Here’s how to give your entire body a workout in just 7 minutes.

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Why Does Hair Go Gray?

Your first gray hair can be upsetting. So why does your hair lose its color as you age?

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Why does hair turn gray?

Robert H. Shmerling, MD
Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

 

If you look at photos of President Obama taken before he ran for president and since he left office, you’ll notice a distinct difference: where there used to be only dark brown hair, there is now far more gray than brown. It seems that the stress of running a country would turn any person’s hair gray. But is stress really to blame? And why does hair turn gray, even for those of us who don’t have jobs quite as stressful as President of the United States?

Stress doesn’t actually turn hair gray. In fact, hair doesn’t actually “turn” gray. Once a hair follicle produces hair, the color is set. If a single strand of hair starts out brown (or red or black or blond), it is never going to turn gray. Your hair follicles produce less color as they age, so when hair goes through its natural cycle of dying and being regenerated, it’s more likely to grow in as gray beginning after age 35. Genetics can play a role in when this starts.

While being under stress can’t turn your hair gray, stress can trigger a common condition called telogen effluvium, which causes hair to shed at about three times faster than normal. The hair grows back, so the condition doesn’t cause balding. But if you’re middle-aged and your hair is falling out and regenerating more quickly because of stress, it’s possible that the hair that grows in will be gray instead of its original color.

Illnesses that cause gray hair

The vast majority of people with gray hair have age-related graying. However, sometimes graying hair indicates an illness, especially if it occurs at a particularly young age. Health problems that may be heralded by gray hair include:

  • vitamin B12 deficiency
  • neurofibromatosis (also called Von Recklinghausen’s disease): this group of inherited diseases causes tumors to grow along nerves and abnormal development of the bones and skin.
  • tuberous sclerosis: an uncommon, inherited condition that causes benign tumors in multiple organs (including the brain, heart, kidneys, eyes, lungs, and skin).
  • thyroid disease
  • vitiligo: this condition causes melanocytes (the cells at the base of hair follicles that produce color) to be lost or destroyed — perhaps because the immune system “misfires” and attacks the scalp rather than an infection.
  • alopecia areata: a disorder in which patches of hair may be suddenly lost, especially the colored (non-gray) hairs. This may lead to “overnight” graying because previously present gray or white hairs suddenly become more obvious. When hair growth resumes, it may be white or gray, but colored hair may eventually return.

Some research also links premature graying to heart disease and low bone mass (called osteopenia, a precursor of osteoporosis). How these conditions relate to hair graying is unclear. Cigarette smoking can also cause premature graying.

The bottom line

When and how thoroughly your hair turns gray is influenced mostly by the genes you inherit from your parents. Though stress may play a role in the process, it would be more helpful to look to past generations rather than your current stress levels to help you predict when or if you’ll go gray. That’s true whether you’re the President of the United States, or someone with a less stressful job.

How Does Acupuncture Work?

Can you use pain to stop pain? Take a closer look at the history and benefits of acupuncture.

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Cancer Strikes a Small Town

A family in Waycross, Georgia, talks about living with childhood cancer. To learn more, see our special report: Cancer Strikes a Small Town: http://wb.md/2eATVqQ

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5 Secrets to Beat Bad Breath

Bad breath, AKA halitosis, is not fun. And it’s even worse for whomever you’re talking to. Truth is half of us deal with it at some point, and that’s men and women.No gender bias here.

So where does it come from? And how can you fight it? Here are 5 things that can help.

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