1. Study suggests student self-reporting can help educators catch academic and mental health problems early

    November 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Missouri-Columbia press release:

    At the start of the school year, many students expect to go through the process of getting their ears and eyes checked by school nurses for hearing and vision issues. Increasingly, students might also expect to be screened for potential mental health problems. Stephen Kilgus, an associate professor in the Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology in the College of Education at the University of Missouri, is analyzing how a new screening tool, which is completed by students, can help teachers identify potential academic, social and emotional problems. The data might help give teachers better tools to improve children’s lives in the classroom and beyond.

    Kilgus and his colleagues have developed a student version of the Social, Academic and Emotional Behavior Risk Screener (SAEBRS), which students use to provide information about their own mental health. Research suggests that as students enter middle school, they tend to internalize issues. This is particularly true of conditions such as depression and anxiety. Furthermore, middle and high school students spend their school day with multiple teachers and adults, making it difficult to find a single adult who can easily track their behavior and report it accurately. Widespread use of the student version of the SAEBRS, in which students report their mental state directly, would remedy this by providing more accurate assessments for older children.

    “The goal is to place these screeners within a broader service delivery framework, where we identify kids that need help, provide them with interventions and then monitor their progress over time,” Kilgus said.

    Schools have quickly become the primary provider for screening students for potential challenges. Kilgus said not every family in a community has access to or the ability to access behavioral support, but schools often have the manpower and resources to provide accessible preventative services. The teacher version of SAEBRS is a screening survey completed by teachers at the start of the school year to identify which students might need more support. Kilgus’ objective is to pinpoint screening tools that can identify more kids who need help and bring teachers and parents in on the conversation.

    “Every time we work with educators, we try to help teachers understand the role they play in providing behavioral supports to students,” Kilgus said. “We also want parents to feel like they understand the process and give them a voice in how the scale and the data will be used.”

    Kilgus said the student version, which was given to middle school students in the study, is available through Fastbridge Learning, a software company that works with schools to offer online academic and behavioral screening, as well as other assessment services. The teacher scale also is available via FastBridge Learning and already in use with 250,000 students nationally.

    “Development and validation of the social, academic and emotional behavior risk screener-student rating scale” was published in Assessment for Effective Intervention. Other contributors were Nathaniel von der Embse, assistant professor of school psychology at the University of South Florida; Stephanie Iaccarino, doctoral student in the educational psychology program at Temple University; Ariel Mankin, doctoral student in the school psychology program at Temple University; and Eran Magen, Director of the Center for Supportive Relationships.


  2. Study suggests optimists and happy people are healthier overall

    November 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Michigan press release:

    Research shows that optimists and happy people are healthier overall, enjoying lower blood pressure and less depression and anxiety, among other measures.

    However, data on the effect of weight and Body Mass Index on physical and mental health are rare — especially among college students, who suffer high rates of anxiety and depression and often neglect physical self-care and exercise.

    To that end, researchers from the University of Michigan and Fudan University in China set out to learn the extent to which BMI and positive outlook affect the physical and mental health of college students in China’s Fudan University.

    They found that a positive outlook and BMI both contributed significantly to good health, said Weiyun Chen, associate professor of health and fitness at the U-M School of Kinesiology.

    Researchers asked 925 students to rate four indicators of psychological well-being: hope, gratitude, life satisfaction and subjective happiness. They also calculated students’ BMI based on self-reported body weight and height. To assess physical and mental health, researchers asked students various questions about their sleep quality and how often they felt healthy, energized, worthless, fidgety, anxious or depressed.

    Chen said that taken together, the four psychological variables and BMI accounted for 41 percent of the total variance in health. Individually, subjective happiness had the most significant impact, followed by hope, and then BMI.

    By themselves, gratitude and life satisfaction didn’t influence overall health. Also, interestingly, BMI was correlated with physical and overall health, but not with hope, gratitude, life satisfaction or mental health.

    In light of the intense academic pressure Chinese college students face, especially at elite institutions like Fudan, Chen said she was surprised by how many students rated themselves happy and healthy. This could point to China’s emphasis on well-being in schools.

    “They have structured, organized physical educations classes,” Chen said. “It’s not just fitness, it’s a variety of things so you can meet different people’s needs. They realized that emphasizing only academics isn’t good for overall health, and that they needed to emphasize the wellness part.”

    These numbers might look different for college students in the U.S., where two of three adults are overweight or obese, and 17 percent of youth ages 2-19 are considered obese, according to the CDC.

    By contrast, 714 Fudan students, or 77.2 percent, were classified as normal body weight, while only 83 students were overweight, and just 5 students were obese, with 123 students considered underweight.

    “Over the past 20 years, the United States has shrunk physical education in elementary school and in college,” Chen said. “In China, especially in the past decade, they have started to emphasize physical education, and they are taking a holistic, whole person approach.”

    Chen said the findings suggest that universities should creatively design wellness programs and centers that dynamically integrate body, mind and spirit into a seamless unit.

    The study has several limitations: all students were recruited from one university, and the results cannot be generalized; the research design prevented establishing causal effects; and the study did not account for gender differences.


  3. Study indicates all forms of sexual harassment can cause psychological harm

    November 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Norwegian University of Science and Technology press release:

    Being exposed to non-physical sexual harassment can negatively affect symptoms of anxiety, depression, negative body image and low self-esteem,” say Associate Professor Mons Bendixen and Professor Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) Department of Psychology.

    This applies to derogatory sexual remarks about appearance, behaviour and sexual orientation, unwanted sexual attention, being subject to rumouring, and being shown sexually oriented images, and the like.

    The researchers posed questions about sexual harassment experienced in the previous year and received responses from almost 3,000 high school students in two separate studies. The responses paint a clear picture.

    Worst for girls

    This is not exclusively something boys do against girls. It’s just as common for boys to harass boys in these ways.

    Girls and boys are equally exposed to unpleasant or offensive non-physical sexual harassment. About 62 per cent of both sexes report that they have experienced this in the past year.

    “Teens who are harassed the most also struggle more in general. But girls generally struggle considerably more than boys, no matter the degree to which they’re being harassed in this way,” Kennair notes.

    Girls are also more negatively affected by sexual harassment than boys are,” adds Bendixen.

    Being a girl is unquestionably the most important risk factor when teens report that they struggle with anxiety, depression, negative body image or low self-esteem.

    However, non-physical sexual harassment is the second most important factor, and is more strongly associated with adolescents’ psychological well-being than being subjected to sexual coercion in the past year or sexual assault prior to that.

    Level of severity

    Bendixen and Kennair believe it’s critical to distinguish between different forms of harassment.

    They divided the types of harassment into two main groups: non-physical harassment and physically coercive sexual behaviour, such as unwanted kissing, groping, intimate touch, and intercourse. Physical sexual coercion is often characterized as sexual abuse in the literature.

    Studies usually lump these two forms of unwanted behaviour together into the same measure. This means that a derogatory comment is included in the same category as rape.

    “As far as we know, this is the first study that has distinguished between these two forms and specifically looked at the effects of non-physical sexual harassment,” says Bendixen.

    Comments that for some individuals may seem innocent enough can cause significant problems for others.

    Many factors accounted for

    Not everyone interprets slang or slurs the same way. If someone calls you a “whore” or “gay,” you may not find it offensive. For this reason, the researchers let the adolescents decide whether they perceived a given action as offensive or not, and had them only report what they did find offensive.

    The article presents data from two studies. The first study from 2007 included 1384 high school students. The second study included 1485 students and was conducted in 2013-2014. Both studies were carried out in Sør-Trøndelag county and are comparable with regard to demographic conditions.

    The results of the first study were reproduced in the second. The findings from the two studies matched each other closely.

    The researchers also took into account a number of other potentially influential factors, such as having parents who had separated or were unemployed, educational programme (vocational or general studies), sexual minority status, immigrant status, and whether they had experienced physical coercion in the past year or any sexual assaults previous to that.

    “We’ve found that sexual minorities generally reported more psychological distress,” says Bendixen. The same applied to young people with parents who are unemployed. On the other hand, students with immigrant status did not report more psychological issues. Bendixen also notes that sexual minorities did not seem to be more negatively affected by sexual harassment than their heterosexual peers.

    However, the researchers did find a clear negative effect of non-physical sexual harassment, over and beyond that of the risk factors above.

    Uncertain as to what is an effective intervention

    So what can be done to reduce behaviours that may cause such serious problems for so many?

    Kennair concedes that he doesn’t know what can help.

    “This has been studied for years and in numerous countries, but no studies have yet revealed any lasting effects of measures aimed at combating sexual harassment,” Bendixen says. “We know that attitude campaigns can change people’s attitudes to harassment, but it doesn’t result in any reduction in harassment behaviour.”

    Bendixen and Kennair want to look into this in an upcoming study. Their goal is to develop practices that reduce all forms of sexual harassment and thereby improve young people’s psychological well-being.


  4. Study suggests toxic air may affect mental health

    November 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Washington press release:

    There is little debate over the link between air pollution and the human respiratory system: Research shows that dirty air can impair breathing and aggravate various lung diseases. Other potential effects are being investigated, too, as scientists examine connections between toxic air and obesity, diabetes and dementia.

    Now add to that list psychological distress, which University of Washington researchers have found is also associated with air pollution. The higher the level of particulates in the air, the UW-led study showed, the greater the impact on mental health.

    The study, published in the November issue of Health & Place, is believed to be the first to use a nationally representative survey pool, cross-referenced with pollution data at the census block level, to evaluate the connection between toxic air and mental health.

    “This is really setting out a new trajectory around the health effects of air pollution,” said Anjum Hajat, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the UW School of Public Health. “The effects of air pollution on cardiovascular health and lung diseases like asthma are well established, but this area of brain health is a newer area of research.”

    Where a person lives can make a big difference to health and quality of life. Scientists have identified “social determinants” of physical and mental well-being, such as availability of healthy foods at local grocers, access to nature or neighborhood safety.

    Air pollution, too, has been associated with behavior changes — spending less time outside, for instance, or leading a more sedentary lifestyle — that can be related to psychological distress or social isolation.

    The UW study looked for a direct connection between toxic air and mental health, relying on some 6,000 respondents from a larger, national, longitudinal study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. Researchers then merged an air pollution database with records corresponding to the neighborhoods of each of the 6,000 survey participants. The team zeroed in on measurements of fine particulate matter, a substance produced by car engines, fireplaces and wood stoves, and power plants fueled by coal or natural gas. Fine particulate matter (particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) is easily inhaled, can be absorbed into the bloodstream and is considered of greater risk than larger particles. (To picture just how small fine particulate matter is, consider this: The average human hair is 70 micrometers in diameter.)

    The current safety standard for fine particulates, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is 12 micrograms per cubic meter. Between 1999 and 2011, the time frame examined in the UW study, survey respondents lived in neighborhoods where fine particulates measured anywhere from 2.16 to 24.23 micrograms per cubic meter, with an average level of 11.34.

    The survey questions relevant to the UW study gauged participants’ feelings of sadness, nervousness, hopelessness and the like and were scored with a scale that assesses psychological distress.

    The UW study found that the risk of psychological distress increased alongside the amount of fine particulate matter in the air. For example, in areas with high levels of pollution (21 micrograms per cubic meter), psychological distress scores were 17 percent higher than in areas with low levels of pollution (5 micrograms per cubic meter). Another finding: Every increase in pollution of 5 micrograms per cubic meter had the same effect as a 1.5-year loss in education.

    Researchers controlled for other physical, behavioral and socioeconomic factors that can influence mental health, such as chronic health conditions, unemployment and excessive drinking.

    But some patterns emerged that warrant more study, explained primary author Victoria Sass, a graduate student in the Department of Sociology.

    When the data are broken down by race and gender, black men and white women show the most significant correlation between air pollution and psychological distress: The level of distress among black men, for instance, in areas of high pollution, is 34 percent greater than that of white men, and 55 percent greater than that of Latino men. A noticeable trend among white women is the substantial increase in distress — 39 percent — as pollution levels rise from low to high.

    Precisely why air pollution impacts mental health, especially among specific populations, was beyond the scope of the study, Sass said. But that’s what makes further research important.

    “Our society is segregated and stratified, which places an unnecessary burden on some groups,” Sass said. “Even moderate levels can be detrimental to health.”

    Air pollution, however, is something that can be mitigated, Hajat said, and has been declining in the United States. It’s a health problem with a clear, actionable solution. But it requires the political will to continue to regulate air quality, Sass added.

    “We shouldn’t think of this as a problem that has been solved,” she said. “There is a lot to be said for having federal guidelines that are rigorously enforced and continually updated. The ability of communities to have clean air will be impacted with more lax regulation.”


  5. Study suggests childhood spankings can lead to adult mental health problems

    by Ashley

    From the University of Michigan press release:

    Getting spanked as a child can lead to a host of mental health problems in adulthood, say University of Michigan researchers.

    A new study by Andrew Grogan-Kaylor and Shawna Lee, both U-M associate professors of social work, and colleagues indicates the violence caused by spanking can lead adults to feel depressed, attempt suicide, drink at moderate-to-heavy levels or use illegal drugs.

    “Placing spanking in a similar category to physical/emotional abuse experiences would increase our understanding of these adult mental health problems,” Grogan-Kaylor said.

    Spanking is defined as using physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain, but not injury, to correct or control the youth’s behavior.

    Researchers note that given that both spanking and physical abuse involves the use of force and infliction of pain, as well as being linked with similar mental health outcomes, it raises the question of whether spanking should be considered an adverse childhood experience. This involves abuse, neglect and household dysfunction, which includes divorce and an incarcerated relative.

    The study used data from the CDC-Kaiser ACE study, which sampled more than 8,300 people, ranging in age from 19 to 97 years. Study participants completed self-reports while seeking routine health checks at an outpatient clinic.

    They were asked about how often they were spanked in their first 18 years, their household background and if an adult inflicted physical abuse (push, grab, slap or shoved) or emotional abuse (insulted or cursed).

    In the study sample, nearly 55 percent of respondents reported being spanked. Men were more likely to experience childhood spanking than women. Compared to white respondents, minority respondents — other than Asians — were more likely to report being spanked.

    Those reporting exposure to spanking had increased odds of depression and other mental health problems, the study showed.

    Author Tracie Afifi, associate professor at the University of Manitoba, says that it’s important to prevent not just child maltreatment, but also harsh parenting before it occurs.

    “This can be achieved by promoting evidence-based parenting programs and policies designed to prevent early adversities, and associated risk factors,” said Lee, who is also a faculty associate at the U-M Institute for Social Research. “Prevention should be a critical direction for public health initiatives to take.”


  6. Study suggests depressed fathers risk not getting help

    November 3, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Lund University press release:

    Postnatal depression among new mothers is a well-known phenomenon. Knowledge about depression in new fathers, however, is more limited. A new study from Lund University in Sweden shows that depression among new fathers may be more common than previously believed. There is also a major risk that it remains undetected using today’s screening instruments, and that fathers do not receive the help they need.

    Detecting depression in new parents is crucial — not only for their own sake but also because depressed parents often become less perceptive to the needs of their child, particularly if the child cries a lot. Babies of depressed parents tend to receive less stimulation which, eventually, could lead to slower development. In some cases, depression may lead to neglect of the child or inappropriately forceful behaviors.

    “These behaviours are not unusual — depression does not only involve major suffering for the parent, but also a risk for the child,” says Elia Psouni, associate professor of developmental psychology and co-author of the study, together with psychologists Johan Agebjörn and Hanne Linder.

    All new mothers are screened for depression, and an estimated 10-12 per cent of women are affected during their first year after giving birth. Fathers, however, are not screened, but previous international studies claim that the proportion of depressed fathers amounts to just over 8 per cent.

    The study of 447 new fathers showed that the established method of detecting depression (EPDS, Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale) works poorly on men.

    “This means that current statistics may not tell the whole truth when it comes to depression in new fathers,” says Elia Psouni. “The screening method does not capture symptoms which are particularly common in men, such as irritation, restlessness, low stress tolerance, and lack of self-control.”

    Although one-third of the depressed fathers in the study had thoughts of hurting themselves, very few were in contact with the healthcare system. Among those who were classified being moderately to severely depressed, 83 per cent had not shared their suffering with anyone. Although difficult to know, the corresponding figure for new mothers is believed to be 20-50 per cent.

    “Telling people you feel depressed is taboo; as a new parent, you are expected to be happy. On top of that, previous research has shown that men are often reluctant to seeking help for mental health issues, especially depression; therefore it’s doubtful that they would reveal their suffering to a paediatric nurse,” says Elia Psouni.

    Elia Psouni, Johan Agebjörn and Hanne Linder hope that their study will lead to improved screening methods in accordance with their suggestions, delivered so that it can reach all fathers. The method they developed, which combines questions from EPDS and GMDS (Gotland Male Depression Scale), proved to be well-suited for capturing dads with multiple symptoms of depression.

    When it comes to screening depression in fathers, Elia Psouni thinks that the period to consider should be longer than the 12 months currently applied in studies of new mothers.

    “Among dads, depression is common even at the end of the first year, which may be due to the fact that they rarely get help, but there may be other explanations. Whatever the reason, it is important to monitor dads’ wellbeing as their part of the parental leave usually occurs towards the end of the child’s first year of life.”


  7. Study suggests antidepressants don’t always work when chronic disease is involved

    by Ashley

    From the UT Southwestern Medical Center press release:

    Scientists are finding more evidence that commonly prescribed antidepressants aren’t effective in people battling both depression and a chronic medical disease, raising a critical question of whether doctors should enact widespread changes in how they treat millions of depressed Americans.

    A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found depressed patients with chronic kidney disease did not benefit from a common antidepressant. The finding follows other research that indicates traditional antidepressants are also ineffective in depressed people with chronic conditions such as asthma and congestive heart failure.

    Experts with the O’Donnell Brain Institute say enough evidence now exists to prompt immediate change in how doctors approach depression cases in conjunction with chronic medical diseases.

    “There is little justification in prescribing an antidepressant that will not work and will only cause side effects,” says Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, senior author of the JAMA study and director of the Center for Depression Research and Clinical Care, part of the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “We should go back to the drawing board to understand the brain changes involved in these subtypes of depression.”

    Nearly half of Americans live with a chronic medical condition, ranging from cancer and dementia to arthritis and asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of these people also have major depression, including more than half of Parkinson’s patients, 41 percent of cancer patients, and more than a quarter of those with diabetes.

    Doctors and patients should take these statistics into account when treating cases of major depression, says Dr. Trivedi, Professor of Psychiatry and holder of the Betty Jo Hay Distinguished Chair in Mental Health and the Julie K. Hersh Chair for Depression Research and Clinical Care.

    He says both sides should understand that standard antidepressants may not work and be prepared to try alternatives if routine monitoring of symptoms and side effects show another strategy is needed.

    Dr. Trivedi, who led the Star*D studies that established widely accepted treatment guidelines for depressed patients, has recently made progress on developing a blood test to determine in advance which antidepressants are more likely to work for important subgroups of patients. He also notes a range of other therapies that have proven effective for patients who don’t respond to initial treatments. These include ketamine, electroconvulsive therapy, neuromodulation with magnetic stimulation, psychotherapy, and exercise.


  8. Study suggests nurses’ depression tied to increased likelihood of medical errors

    October 31, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Ohio State University press release:

    Depression is common among nurses and is linked to a higher likelihood they’ll make medical errors, new research suggests.

    The study found that more than half of nurses who took part in a national survey reported sub-optimal physical and mental health. Nurses in poorer health had a 26 to 71 percent higher likelihood of reporting medical errors than did their healthier peers. Depression stood out as a major concern among the 1,790 U.S. nurses who responded to the survey, and as the key predictor of medical errors.

    “When you’re not in optimal health, you’re not going to be on top of your game,” said lead author Bernadette Melnyk, dean of The Ohio State University’s College of Nursing and chief wellness officer for the university.

    Hospital administrators should build a culture of well-being and implement strategies to better support good physical and mental health in their employees. It’s good for nurses, and it’s good for their patients.”

    The study, which appears online in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, also found that nurses who perceived their workplace as conducive to wellness were more likely to report good health.

    The National Academy of Medicine has prioritized clinician well-being in its recently launched action collaborative, acknowledging that burnout, compassion fatigue, depression and poor work-life balance affect a large percentage of doctors, nurses and other health professionals.

    The new research is the first large-scale national study to link nurses’ well-being to self-reported medical errors, Melnyk said.

    “Nurses do a great job of caring for other people, but they often don’t prioritize their own self-care,” she said. “And their work lives are increasingly stressful – patients are sicker, hospitals are crunched financially and nurses are having to find ways to juggle patient care with all of their other assigned tasks, such as tending to the electronic medical record.”

    Limiting long shifts and providing easy-to-access, evidence-based resources for physical and mental health, including depression screenings, could go a long way toward improving nurses’ wellness and decreasing the chances that mistakes will be made, Melnyk said.

    The data came from a survey conducted by the American Academy of Nursing’s million hearts sub-committee of the health behavior expert panel. The survey included 53 questions and was offered through nursing organizations and 20 U.S. hospitals. Only responses from nurses who were in clinical practice were included in the study. The majority of participants were white women and the average age of participants was 44, which closely resembles the demographics of the nursing workforce nationwide.

    More than half (54 percent) of the nurses reported poor physical and mental health. About a third said they had some degree of depression, anxiety or stress. Less than half said they had a good professional quality of life.

    And self-reported medical errors were common. About half the nurses reported medical errors in the past five years.

    When researchers compared the wellness data to the medical error data, they saw a significant link between poor health – particularly depression – and medical errors.

    While a survey that depends on self-reported perceptions has its limitations, the evidence should prompt efforts to improve the mental and physical health of nurses, physicians and other clinicians, Melnyk said.

    “Health care systems and hospitals have to do a better job of creating wellness cultures for their clinicians,” she said. “The National Academy of Medicine has identified this as a public health problem and has made clinician well-being a high priority for health care quality and safety.”


  9. Study suggests disaster makes people with depression less healthy

    October 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Rice University press release:

    People who exhibit even a few depressive symptoms before a major life stressor, such as a disaster, may experience an increase in inflammation — a major risk factor for heart disease and other negative health conditions — after the event, according to new research from Rice University.

    The findings have important implications for survivors of crisis situations, according to Chris Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychology at Rice and one of the study’s authors. “An Evaluation of Perceived Health Risk and Depressive Symptoms Before a Disaster in Predicting Post-Disaster Inflammation” will appear in an upcoming edition of Psychosomatic Medicine.

    The study followed 124 people (38 males and 86 females, including whites, Hispanics and African-Americans) who lived in Texas City, Texas, before and after a petrochemical refinery in the city exploded March 23, 2005. The explosion killed 15 workers, injured more than 170 others and shook buildings as far as 10 miles away.

    The researchers found that after the disaster, study participants who beforehand exhibited even minor depressive symptoms (such as a feeling of fatigue or sadness) and identified concern for their physical health had a 75 percent increase in their blood of C-reactive protein, Tumor necrosis factor receptor 1 and Interleukin 6, all of which are immune markers that signal inflammation in the body. Participants who did not display depressive symptoms or identify concern for their physical health beforehand saw no increase in the immune markers after the disaster.

    “We found that people who are slightly depressed and stressed out about their health risks prior to a disaster had a negative response to the actual disaster in the form of these immune markers showing up in their bloodstream,” Fagundes said. “If you’re already above the baseline for mental and physical health, your immune system is primed to have a much more dramatic effect. This could explain other researchers’ findings demonstrating increased cardiovascular events (any event that can damage the heart muscle) following natural disasters.”

    Before the explosion, participants had completed the Concern About Petrochemical Health Risk Scale, a four-item measure of one’s subjective risk of health problems due to living near a petrochemical plant. The four items focused on concerns of health risks stemming from pollution, accidents, stored waste and generally living near oil and chemical industries. Participants indicated their degree of concern for each item on a scale ranging from 1 (not at all concerned) to 5 (extremely concerned).

    Also before the explosion, participants completed a 20-item Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale survey and indicated symptoms of depression they had experienced during the previous two weeks on a scale ranging from 0 (rarely) to 3 (most or all of the time). Collection of follow-up information took place between May and August 2005 (two to six months after the explosion). Participants also gave samples of their blood both before and after the explosion.

    The pre-disaster data used in this study was initially being collected for another study, Fagundes said. The researchers put together the resources to implement a study after the disaster to assess changes, which is similar to what Fagundes is doing now following Hurricane Harvey.

    Fagundes said the study is especially timely following Hurricane Harvey in Houston.

    “It is certainly possible that we will see these same health patterns in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey,” he said.

    Fagundes hopes the study will encourage future work focusing on exposure to disasters and the related negative mental and physical health outcomes.


  10. Study suggests availability of nature near city-dwellers’ homes improves brain health

    October 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft press release:

    A study conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development has investigated the relationship between the availability of nature near city dwellers’ homes and their brain health. Its findings are relevant for urban planners among others.

    Noise, pollution, and many people in a confined space: Life in a city can cause chronic stress. City dwellers are at a higher risk of psychiatric illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia than country dwellers. Comparisons show higher activity levels in city dwellers’ than in country dwellers’ amygdala — a central nucleus in the brain that plays an important role in stress processing and reactions to danger. Which factors can have a protective influence? A research team led by psychologist Simone Kühn has examined which effects nature near people’s homes such as forest, urban green, or wasteland has on stress-processing brain regions such as the amygdala. “Research on brain plasticity supports the assumption that the environment can shape brain structure and function. That is why we are interested in the environmental conditions that may have positive effects on brain development. Studies of people in the countryside have already shown that living close to nature is good for their mental health and well-being. We therefore decided to examine city dwellers,” explains first author Simone Kühn, who led the study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and now works at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE).

    Indeed, the researchers found a relationship between place of residence and brain health: those city dwellers living close to a forest were more likely to show indications of a physiologically healthy amygdala structure und were therefore presumably better able to cope with stress. This effect remained stable when differences in educational qualifications and income levels were controlled for. However, it was not possible to find an association between the examined brain regions and urban green, water, or wasteland. With these data, it is not possible to distinguish whether living close to a forest really has positive effects on the amygdala or whether people with a healthier amygdala might be more likely to select residential areas close to a forest. Based on present knowledge, however, the researchers regard the first explanation as more probable. Further longitudinal studies are necessary to accumulate evidence.

    The participants in the present study are from the Berlin Aging Study II (BASE-II) — a larger longitudinal study examining the physical, psychological, and social conditions for healthy aging. In total, 341 adults aged 61 to 82 years took part in the present study. Apart from carrying out memory and reasoning tests, the structure of stress-processing brain regions, especially the amygdala, was assessed using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In order to examine the influence of nature close to peoples’ homes on these brain regions, the researchers combined the MRI data with geoinformation about the participants’ places of residence. This information stemmed from the European Environment Agency’s Urban Atlas, which provides an overview of urban land use in Europe.

    “Our study investigates the connection between urban planning features and brain health for the first time,” says co-author Ulman Lindenberger, Director of the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. By 2050, almost 70 percent of the world population is expected to be living in cities. These results could therefore be very important for urban planning. In the near future, however, the observed association between the brain and closeness to forests would need to be confirmed in further studies and other cities, stated Ulman Lindenberger.