Category: Research Findings

Are you feeling lucky?

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Everyone’s heard the phrase “the luck of the Irish” but it turns out that you don’t need to be Irish nor do you need to find a four leaf clover in order to experience the benefits of good luck, all you have to do is believe that luck is one of your stable intrinsic personal attributes.

A belief in luck was originally thought by psychologists to be an irrational and maladaptive belief with negative consequences for health. For example, if you believe that you’re lucky you may engage in risky behaviors like smoking or indoor tanning because you don’t think you’ll suffer harmful consequences like cancer.

However, psychologists now believe that a belief in luck might actually be a positive attribute which could lead to greater feelings of confidence, control, and optimism. In addition to allowing people to be more open and optimistic about new experiences and opportunities, people who believe in luck have also been shown to be less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than those who do not believe in luck.

Also, when negative events outside of their control occur, those who believe in luck may be better able to cope with these experiences due to their increased ability to remain optimistic and persevere.

So, are you feeling lucky?

Is Health Advertising Worth the Cost? You Be the Judge.

From a small printed flyer to a 30-second T.V. spot during the Super Bowl, there’s no question that advertising is expensive. And while there are many different forms of getting the word out, there are different reasons we advertise as well. It’s safe to say most advertising or marketing, particularly on a large scale, is done for competitive reasons—to boost sales and detract potential customers from going someplace else. But what about when the product being advertised isn’t actually for sale? What’s the goal of marketing something if you aren’t going to profit financially?

In the health communication field, organizations choose to advertise as a means of communicating something to the general public. This could be a health message to get tested for HIV or a celebrity testimonial to stop domestic violence. Either way, in health communication, the the “seller” or advertiser doesn’t stand to gain a profit on their effort in the financial sense, but rather, to promote healthy behaviors that in the long term, save lives. But these ads aren’t cheap. As health communicators, how do we know when the message we’re promoting is effective at producing change for the better?

That’s just what research economist Paul Shafer is trying to determine. A doctoral student in health policy and management, Shafer is working to determine the effectiveness of tobacco cessation advertisements from the Tips From Former Smokers campaign. The ads aired from March 4 to June 21, 2013. To determine effectiveness, Shafer and his colleagues looked at web traffic and determined the number of unique visitors the site had during the time the ads were aired.

The federally funded national tobacco education campaign resulted in the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) campaign website having over 900,000 total visits and nearly 1.4 million page views. There were an additional 660,000 unique visitors, meaning users returned to the site after their initial visit.

In his paper, published online Feb. 17, in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, Shafer seeks to demonstrate the relationship between the amount of advertising and the resulting numbers in web traffic. He attempts to show that by increased advertising leads to increased traffic, for both new and returning visitors, thus, implying the advertisements are effective at least getting people’s attention.

Shafer explains the uniqueness of his study is that he and his researchers were able to record the variation of media dose over time and across markets, as opposed to comparing aggregated traffic before, during, and after the campaign.

In addition, he and his team were able to determine fluctuation between the two types of ads, both aimed at providing resources to smokers desiring to quit. The ads used different tagging methods, such as a URL or a telephone hotline number, with results showing that the URL ads were more effective at driving users to the website, but that the hotline ads were also effective at increasing web views.

While Shafer’s study makes it difficult to determine the number of individuals who quit smoking as a direct result of the ads, the study does imply that such campaigns not only serve as a call to action, but also are effective at linking people to resources they would otherwise likely not know about. Finally, the results of the study imply the potential researchers have at more accurately forecasting the impact such ads will have at increasing web usage and interest in online resources that promote healthy behaviors.

So, aside from the fact that health campaigns can be quite expensive to implement, and there are no guarantees of success, with careful formative research and a targeted approach, such campaigns are valuable for the potential they have at impacting populations on a large scale at changing behaviors for good.

Can helping others help YOU?

Eating well, exercising, no smoking, meaningful social connections. You probably know all of these are essential components to living a healthy life. But did you know that giving support – being the shoulder to cry on, showing up with your friend’s favorite food after a hard day – may also play a large role in well-being?

A study recently published in Psychosomatic Medicine suggests that it is providing support – not being on the receiving end – that may be contributing to the stress-buffering effects of a strong social network. While both giving and receiving social support are associated with better psychosocial outcomes, our brains may benefit more from giving. The research team determined this by observing people’s brain activity during a stressful math task. Overall, people who provided more social support had patterns of brain activity indicative of lower stress (if you want to get specific, there was reduced blood flow to the dACC, anterior insula, and amygdala). Moreover, these people had increased blood flow to areas associated with rewards during a prosocial (donating money) task.

However, it’s possible that people who give more social support are in more privileged positions (of power, of money, of resources, etc.), so they – no surprise – are less affected by stressful math tasks. Regardless, providing support helps strengthen our social ties and brings us closer together, even if the direct act of providing support isn’t the cause. So what do you think… is bringing your pal chicken soup after a hard day good for your health, or is it just good for your friendship? Let me know in the comments!

This post is part of the Psy-Friday series; every Friday Zan talks about findings in psychology, and how knowing the mind can influence health and well-being.

(Image credit: “Giving Hands and Red Pushpin” by Artotem / Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Is There A Limit to How Much Your Heart Can Handle?

With February marking American Heart Month, the American Heart Association has developed detailed plans for personalizing your daily workout routine to help ensure Americans live more healthy and prosperous lives.

Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, stroke, and hypertension, is the nation’s leading cause of death, claiming one out of every three lives. So as warmer weather approaches, more folks are doing what they can to reduce their risk factors associated with heart disease, as well as get their bodies back in shape for swimsuit season!

But how much is too much exercise? Aren’t we told the more the merrier when it comes to physical activity? While most of us don’t fall in that category, researchers and cardiologists at UT Southwestern Medical Center are interested in learning the effects —both positive and negative — of excessive exercise and how it affects one’s body over time.

They’re interested in learning how much exercise it takes to cause damage to the heart. To do this, their working with 48-year old Ben Lecomte, who is preparing to swim the Pacific Ocean, from San Francisco to Tokyo. The Texas resident and environmentalist will swim eight hours per day, for a total of 5,500 miles. The event will take five to six months to complete.

Researchers felt Lecomte’s journey presented a good opportunity to evaluate the effects of a long, daily workout, and have asked Lecomte to monitor his heart while he swims. Previous studies have demonstrated that extreme endurance athletes sometimes end up with scarring or fibrosis at the septum, or the center of the heart. This can be dangerous if someone has an underlying genetic condition that weakens the heart muscle.

Another distinction among high endurance athletes is the buildup of calcium (called calcification) on the heart. While it may seem ironic that athletes at this level might suffer from this, both calcification and scarring are believed to be related to one’s genetic makeup. While this isn’t particularly worrisome to researchers—after all, athletes tend to outlive those who do not exercise—they do encourage runners to study their family histories for possible heart disease and recommend a medical evaluation before taking on any high endurance activities.

For now, researchers at UT Southwest Medical are interested in seeing how the nearly 6,000 mile journey will affect Lecomte’s heart, as this data will help determine how extreme exercise changes the heart, as well as help determine how much exercise a normal heart can handle.

Again, while most of us need not worry about maximizing our heart’s capabilities regarding exercise, it’s still a good idea to get checked out by your physician, particularly if you have any family history of heart disease.

Signposts for Science News

When finding news about science and health is as easy as a tap of your fingertip, it’s easier than ever to be up to date on the latest discoveries or policy issues. Unfortunately, it is almost as easy to become misinformed. Follow these three tips to help become a savvy science news consumer.

  1. WARNING: Sources that use “cause.” A lot of times, news sources will simplify findings of a study to either make it sound more interesting or because the actual results are more nuanced and complex than what can fit into a short-form post. Because of this, you’ll see the internet peppered with inaccurate science and health news. For instance, there has been a lot of coverage on the how marijuana use is associated with psychiatric illness. While there are studies that find this association, some news sources go as far as to purport that “cannabis can trigger schizophrenia.” Most of these kinds of findings are actually correlational, which only means a relationship was found, not (necessarily) that one causes the other.
  2. CAUTION: Potential future therapies. As a science writer, I will admit I’m guilty of writing this one. Sometimes we get excited when we read news that a mechanism underlying Alzheimer’s disease was discovered, so we naturally search for the next step. Remember that research is slow, and while the human race has truly accomplished incredible things, even within the past ten years, don’t get your hopes up that a new discovery will mean you or your family’s health issues will be over soon.
  3. YIELD: Check your source’s source. We live in a fast-paced 24-hour news cycle world. This means journalists have to churn out information quickly and often. To meet all the demand, websites will cover the same stories, which is great because this means news can reach all different audiences (from tech-savvy consumers of Gizmodo, to moms skimming the AOL news headlines, to people paying subscriptions for New York Times online). However, if you really want to know what the original research is about, you need to go to the source, or at least the press release issued by the university or institution. Oftentimes, websites will link to each other instead of the original article or press release! This can turn into an interesting game of “telephone” where the original message gets passed on so many different times so that the first meaning is highly distorted.

Warning: E-Cigarette Advertising Increases Urge to Smoke

While controversy surrounds the fact that e-cigarettes are often promoted as a safe alternative to tobacco cigarettes, a recent study shows their advertising may be more dangerous than the products themselves. Researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication University of Pennsylvania found that visual depictions of e-cigarettes in advertisements actually increase daily smokers’ urge to smoke cigarettes and may lead to an increase in actual smoking behavior.

Although tobacco advertising has been banned from television and radio in the United States since 1971; electronic cigarettes, because they don’t use tobacco directly, are not subject to this same restriction. As a result, advertisements promoting e-cigarettes have increased substantially in the last five years.

Given the visual similarities of vaping e-cigarettes and smoking tobacco cigarettes, researchers set out to find out whether visual depictions of vaping would serve as smoking cues, and create a greater urge among daily, intermittent, and former smokers to smoke tobacco cigarettes.

Participants in the study were randomly assigned to either view three e-cigarette advertisements containing visual smoking cues, three without visual smoking cues, or no advertisements at all. They then answered questions about their urge to smoke, their belief that they have the ability to quit smoking, and their attitudes and intentions to quit smoking. What they found was not surprising.

Results not only showed that visual depictions of vaping in commercials increased smoking urge among daily smokers, but also that former smokers exposed to vaping cues reported lower intentions to continue to abstain from smoking. While intermittent smokers did not show any significant differences, researchers attribute this to the fact that their smoking is more situation specific, therefore the ads did not affect them.

While it is clear that more research needs to be done in this area, this study is one of the first of it’s kind to prove the harmful affects of vaping cues and is a big step in the movement towards a ban on e-cigarette advertising.



Using Moog for Mood? Digitally altering voices induces mood changes.

How audio can induce mood changes in humans. Credit: science team; Source: Science Daily

Have you ever given yourself a pep talk in the mirror to boost your confidence? Sometimes our own behavior informs us of how we are feeling; if you smile, you might start to feel happier, for instance. However, what would happen if you heard a digitally altered, happier version of your own voice? Would that make you feel more positive? Based on a study published this month in PNAS, there’s a good chance it would. To test the awareness of people’s emotional expressions, a team of researchers developed digital algorithms that alter voices to sound happier, sadder, or more fearful. These digitally altered voices were subsequently played back in real time to unknowing participants. Surprisingly, hearing their altered voice subsequently caused a change in their mood. When hearing their own “sad” voice, participants reported feeling sad, and when hearing their own “happy” voices, participants reported feeling happier. This suggests that auditory feedback has a direct influence on our emotional state – even if it didn’t actually emanate from our own vocal cords.

While there is still much more basic research that needs to be done using these digital algorithms, there is great potential for the development of new therapies to treat mood disorders. For example, digitally altering a patient’s voice may help induce positive attitude change or reduce the emotional impact of traumatic events.

Original research article: 10.1073/pnas.1506552113

This post is part of the Psy-Friday series; every Friday Zan talks findings in psychology, and how knowing the mind can influence health and well-being.

Snake Venom (in the operating room!?)

While blood loss is inevitable for just about any surgical procedure, post-operative bleeding can be a serious issue for many, especially those on anti-clotting drugs used to prevent heart attacks and strokes. For most people, blood loss is contained by natural mechanisms, and by preparations made by the surgical team which may include applying pressure to the wound and adhesives. But for those who need something more, one doctor thinks he has found the answer in snake venom…

Jeffrey Hartgerink, a chemist at Rice University in Houston, Texas, believes the mechanism through which venomous snakes kill their prey, may be harnessed to prevent post-operative bleeding. The bite from a spearhead pit viper turns the blood of its prey into jello, which is fatal for obvious reasons as it obstructs blood flow. Dr. Hartgerink experimented with using venom to promote controlled blood clotting (only to specific areas) on rats. He mixed the venom with hydrogel, a substance that traps water, allowing the venom to leak out a slow rate – slow enough to not escape into the blood stream, but fast enough to seal the wound. This worked. Next Dr. Hartgerink tested this substance on rats that had been treated with anticoagulants, and rats that had not been treated, and found results to be the same, regardless of whether or not the rats were given an anticoagulant.

This gel has not yet been used in an actual surgical procedure, but according to this study, published in Biomaterials Science and Engineering, snake venom may be a useful tool in the operating room.

Speaking two languages may help restore brain function after stroke

A recent study published in Stroke, a journal sponsored by the American Heart Association, found that patients who spoke two languages experienced better recovery after having a stroke, compared to patients who only spoke one language.

The study, which took place in Hyderbad, India, evaluated 608 patients who had experienced a stroke between 2006 and 2013 – more than half of these patients spoke at least two languages. Even after controlling for demographic and lifestyle factors such as age, smoking, chronic disease, and education, results showed that 40% those who spoke more than one language had normal cognitive function after stroke, whereas only 20% of patients who spoke only one language had the same outcome. Patients who spoke more than one language also had better attention, post-stroke.

When interviewed by Reuters, the lead researchers on this study offered an explanation for why speaking two languages may help recovery, post-stroke:

“Using multiple languages challenges the brain, as it can be harder to find a particular word switching between languages, and this challenge promotes neuroplasticity or ‘cognitive reserve,’ which prepares the brain to deal with new challenges, like disease, she said.”

The original research article, and data supplement, is available free here.

Quit with the puffMarker

If you are a smoker, chances are you have tried to quit. You know smoking is expensive and detrimental to your health and those around you. However, quitting is difficult and what works for a friend may not work for you. Don’t give up yet! Researchers are developing a wearable proposed to help smokers quit by collecting “big data” and analyzing trends to help improve cessation programs.

A study conducted by Center for Excellence for Mobile Sensor Data-to-Knowledge (MD2K) used a wearable, named the puffMarker, which comprised of a wrist and chest sensor. The wrist sensor detects hand motions typical when smoking and the chest sensor detects respiratory patterns typical when smoking. The device was about 85% accurate at detecting relapse smoking among participants trying to quit.

This data will be used to help predict relapse and assess different intervention efforts more accurately. It could also be used to communicate with doctors, cessation support staff, and caregivers, who could then provide better support for individuals trying to quit. Simply wearing the sensors and seeing the data can be motivating for some smokers to abstain too. For example, Tom has tried to quit several times and because he has worn the puffMaker each time, his doctor and family know that he tends to relapse on day 3 or 4 and they can then provide more support during this time. Tom can also reduce environmental triggers that lead to relapse such as avoiding bars or refraining from hanging out with other smokers during the most challenging times of his quit attempt.

This technology is expected to be developed for other addictive behaviors such as alcohol and drug abuse. More research needs to be done, but once again wearables show promise in helping promote healthy behaviors.

Photo Source: Flickr