It’s easy to appreciate the seasonality of winter blues, but web searches show that other disorders may ebb and flow with the weather as well.

Google searches are becoming an intriguing source of health-related information, exposing everything from the first signs of an infectious disease outbreak to previously undocumented side effects of medications. So researchers led by John Ayers of the University of Southern California decided to comb through queries about mental illnesses to look for potentially helpful patterns related to these conditions. Given well known connections between depression and winter weather, they investigated possible connections between mental illnesses and seasons.

Using all of Google’s search data from 2006 to 2010, they studied searches for terms like “schizophrenia” “attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),” “bulimia” and “bipolar” in both the United States and Australia.  Since winter and summer are reversed in the two countries finding opposing patterns in the two countries’ data would strongly suggest that season, rather than other things that might vary with time of year, was important in some way in the prevalence of the disorders.

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“All mental health queries followed seasonal patterns with winter peaks and summer troughs,” the researchers write in their study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. They found that mental health queries in general were 14% higher in the winter in the U.S. and 11% higher in the Australian winter.

The seasonal timing of queries regarding each disorder was also similar in the two countries. In both countries, for example, searches about eating disorders (including anorexia and bulimia) and schizophrenia surged during winter months; those in the U.S. were 37% more likely and Australians were 42% more likely to seek information about these disorders during colder weather than during the summer. And compared to summer searches, schizophrenia queries were 37% more common in the American winter and 36% more frequent during the Australian winter. ADHD queries were also highly seasonal, with 31% more winter searches in the U.S. and 28% more in Australia compared to summer months.

Searches for depression and bipolar disorder, which might seem to be among the more common mental illnesses to strike during the cold winter months, didn’t solicit as many queries: there were 19% more winter searches for depression in the U.S. and 22% more in Australia for depression. For bipolar, 16% more American searches for the term occurred in the winter than in the summer, and 18% more searches occurred during the Australian winter. The least seasonal disorder was anxiety, which varied by just 7% in the U.S. and 15% in Australia between summer and winter months.

Understanding how the prevalence of mental illnesses change with the seasons could lead to more effective preventive measures that alert people to symptoms and guide them toward treatments that could help, say experts. Previous research suggests that shorter daylight hours and the social isolation that accompanies harsh weather conditions might explain some of these seasonal differences in mental illnesses, for example, so improving social interactions during the winter months might be one way to alleviate some symptoms. Drops in vitamin D levels, which rise with exposure to sunlight, may also play a role, so supplementation for some people affected by mood disorders could also be effective.

 

The researchers emphasize that searches for disorders are only queries for more information, and don’t necessarily reflect a desire to learn more about a mental illness after a new diagnosis. For example, while the study found that searches for ‘suicide’ were 29% more common in winter in America and 24% more common during the colder season in Australia, other investigations showed that completed suicides tend to peak in spring and early summer. Whether winter queries have any relationship at all to spring or summer suicides isn’t clear yet, but the results suggest a new way of analyzing data that could lead to better understanding of a potential connection.

And that’s the promise of data on web searches, says the scientists. Studies on mental illnesses typically rely on telephone or in-person surveys in which participants are asked about symptoms of mental illness or any history with psychological disorders, and people may not always answer truthfully in these situations. Searches, on the other hand, have the advantage of reflecting people’s desire to learn more about symptoms they may be experiencing or to improve their knowledge about a condition for which they were recently diagnosed. So such queries could become a useful resource for spotting previously undetected patterns in complex psychiatric disorders.  “The current results suggest that monitoring queries can provide insight into national trends on seeking information regarding mental health, such as seasonality…If additional studies can validate the current approach by linking clinical symptoms with patterns of search queries,” the authors conclude, “This method may prove essential in promoting population mental health.”

 

Many people hit the gym or pound the pavement to improve cardiovascular health, build muscle, and of course, get a rockin’ bod, but working out has above-the-neck benefits, too. For the past decade or so, scientists have pondered how exercising can boost brain function. Regardless of age or fitness level (yup, this includes everyone from mall-walkers to marathoners), studies show that making time for exercise provides some serious mental benefits. Get inspired to exercise by reading up on these unexpected ways that working out can benefit mental health, relationships and lead to a healthier and happier life overall.

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1. Reduce Stress 

Rough day at the office? Take a walk or head to the gym for a quick workout. One of the most common mental benefits of exercise is stress relief. Working up a sweat can help manage physical and mental stress. Exercise also increases concentrations of norepinephrine, a chemical that can moderate the brain’s response to stress. So go ahead and get sweaty — working out can reduce stress and boost the body’s ability to deal with existing mental tension. Win-win!

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2. Boost Happy Chemicals
Slogging through a few miles on the ‘mill can be tough, but it’s worth the effort! Exercise releases endorphins, which create feelings of happiness and euphoria. Studies have shown that exercise can even alleviate symptoms among the clinically depressed. For this reason, docs recommend that people suffering from depression or anxiety (or those who are just feeling blue) pencil in plenty of gym time. In some cases, exercise can be just as effective as antidepressant pills in treating depression. Don’t worry if you’re not exactly the gym rat type — getting a happy buzz from working out for just 30 minutes a few times a week can instantly boost overall mood.

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3. Improve Self-Confidence
Hop on the treadmill to look (and more importantly, feel) like a million bucks. On a very basic level, physical fitness can boost self-esteem and improve positive self-image. Regardless of weight, size, gender or age, exercise can quickly elevate a person’s perception of his or her attractiveness, that is, self-worth. How’s that for feeling the (self) love?

4. Enjoy The Great Outdoors
For an extra boost of self-love, take that workout outside. Exercising in the great outdoors can increase self-esteem even more. Find an outdoor workout that fits your style, whether it’s rock-climbing, hiking, renting a canoe or just taking a jog in the park. Plus, all that Vitamin D acquired from soaking up the sun (while wearing sunscreen, of course!) can lessen the likelihood of experiencing depressive symptoms. Why book a spa day when a little fresh air and sunshine (and exercise) can work wonders for self-confidence and happiness?

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5. Prevent Cognitive Decline

It’s unpleasant, but it’s true — as we get older, our brains get a little… hazy. As aging and degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s kill off brain cells, the noggin actually shrinks, losing many important brain functions in the process. While exercise and a healthy diet can’t “cure” Alzheimer’s, they can help shore up the brain against cognitive decline that begins after age 45 Working out, especially between age 25 and 45, boosts the chemicals in the brain that support and prevent degeneration of the hippocampus, an important part of the brain for memory and learning.

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6. Alleviate Anxiety
Quick Q&A: Which is better at relieving anxiety — a warm bubble bath or a 20-minute jog? You might be surprised at the answer. The warm and fuzzy chemicals that are released during and after exercise can help people with anxiety disorders calm down. Hopping on the track or treadmill for some moderate-to-high intensity aerobic exercise (intervals, anyone?) can reduce anxiety sensitivity. And we thought intervals were just a good way to burn calories!

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7. Boost Brainpower
Those buff lab rats might be smarter than we think. Various studies on mice and men have shown that cardiovascular exercise can create new brain cells (akaneurogenesis) and improve overall brain performance. Ready to apply for a Nobel Prize? Studies suggest that a tough workout increases levels of a brain-derived protein (known as BDNF) in the body, believed to help with decision making, higher thinking and learning. Smarty (spandex) pants, indeed.

8. Sharpen Memory
Get ready to win big at Go Fish. Regular physical activity boosts memory and ability to learn new things. Getting sweaty increases production of cells in hippocampusresponsible for memory and learning. For this reason, research has linked children’sbrain development with level of physical fitness (take that, recess haters!). But exercise-based brainpower isn’t just for kids. Even if it’s not as fun as a game of Red Rover, working out can boost memory among grown-ups, too. A study showed thatrunning sprints improved vocabulary retention among healthy adults.

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9. Help Control Addiction
The brain releases dopamine, the “reward chemical” in response to any form of pleasure, be that exercise, sex, drugs, alcohol or food. Unfortunately, some people become addicted to dopamine and dependent on the substances that produce it, like drugs or alcohol (and more rarely, food and sex). On the bright side, exercise can help in addiction recovery. Short exercise sessions can also effectively distract drug oralcohol addicts, making them de-prioritize cravings (at least in the short term). Working out when on the wagon has other benefits, too. Alcohol abuse disrupts many body processes, including circadian rhythms. As a result, alcoholics find they can’t fall asleep (or stay asleep) without drinking. Exercise can help reboot the body clock, helping people hit the hay at the right time.

10. Increase Relaxation
Ever hit the hay after a long run or weight session at the gym? For some, a moderate workout can be the equivalent of a sleeping pilleven for people with insomnia. Moving around five to six hours before bedtime raises the body’s core temperature. When the body temp drops back to normal a few hours later, it signals the body that it’s time to sleep.

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11. Get More Done
Feeling uninspired in the cubicle? The solution might be just a short walk or jog away. Research shows that workers who take time for exercise on a regular basis are more productive and have more energy than their more sedentary peers. While busy schedules can make it tough to squeeze in a gym session in the middle of the day, some experts believe that midday is the ideal time for a workout due to the body’scircadian rhythms.

12. Tap Into Creativity
Most people end a tough workout with a hot shower, but maybe we should be breaking out the colored pencils instead. A heart-pumping gym session can boost creativity for up to two hours afterwards. Supercharge post-workout inspiration by exercising outdoors and interacting with nature (see benefit #4). Next time you need a burst of creative thinking, hit the trails for a long walk or run to refresh the body and the brain at the same time.

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13. Inspire Others
Whether it’s a pick-up game of soccer, a group class at the gym, or just a run with a friend, exercise rarely happens in a bubble. And that’s good news for all of us. Studies show that most people perform better on aerobic tests when paired up with a workout buddy. Pin it to inspiration or good old-fashioned competition, nobody wants to let the other person down. In fact, being part of a team is so powerful that it can actuallyraise athletes’ tolerances for pain. Even fitness beginners can inspire each other to push harder during a sweat session, so find a workout buddy and get moving!

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Working out can have positive effects far beyond the gym (and beach season). Gaining self-confidence, getting out of a funk, and even thinking smarter are some of the motivations to take time for exercise on a regular basis.

 

* Text by Sophia Breene, Huff Post (3/27/2013)

Make all sorts of ostensibly conscious and seemingly rational choices when we are aware of a potential risk. We eat organic food, max out on multivitamins and quickly forswear some products (even whole technologies) at the slightest hint of danger. We carry guns and vote for the candidate we think will keep us safe. Yet these choices are far from carefully considered — and, surprisingly often, they contravene reason. What’s more, while our choices about risk invariably feel right when we make them, many of these decisions end up putting us in greater peril.

 

Researchers in neuroscience, psychology, economics and other disciplines have made a range of discoveries about why human beings sometimes fear more than the evidence warrants, and sometimes less than the evidence warns. That science is worth reviewing at length. But one current issue offers a crash course in the most significant of these findings: the fear of vaccines, particularly vaccines for children.

In a 2011 Thomson Reuters/NPR poll, nearly one parent in three with a child under 18 was worried about vaccines, and roughly one American in four was concerned about the value and safety of vaccines in general. In the same poll, roughly one out of every five college-educated respondents worried that childhood vaccination was connected with autism; 7 percent said they feared a link with Type 1 diabetes.

Based on the evidence, these and most other concerns about vaccines are unfounded. A comprehensive report last year from the Institute of Medicine is just one of many studies to report that vaccines do not cause autism, diabetes, asthma or other major afflictions listed by the anti-vaccination movement.

Yet these fears, fierce and visceral, persist. To frustrated doctors and health officials, vaccine-phobia seems an irrational denial of the facts that puts both the unvaccinated child and the community at greater risk (as herd immunity goes down, disease spread rises). But the more we learn about how risk perception works, the more understandable — if still quite dangerous — the fear of vaccines becomes.

Along with many others, the cognitive psychologists Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon and Baruch Fischhoff of Carnegie Mellon University have identified several reasons something might feel more or less scary than mere reason might suppose. Humans subconsciously weigh the risks and benefits of any choice or course of action — and if taking a particular action seems to afford little or no benefit, the risk automatically feels bigger. Vaccinations are a striking example. As the subconscious mind might view it, vaccines protect children from diseases like measles and pertussis, or whooping cough, that are no longer common, so the benefit to vaccination feels small — and smaller still, perhaps, compared to even the minuscule risk of a serious side effect. (In actuality, outbreaks of both of these infections have been more common in recent years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) Contrast this with how people felt in the 1950s, in the frightening days of polio, when parents lined their kids up for vaccines that carried much greater risk than do the modern ones. The risk felt smaller, because the benefit was abundantly clear.

Professor Slovic and Professor Fischhoff and others have found that a risk imposed upon a person, like mandatory vaccination programs (nearly all of which allow people to opt out), feels scarier than the same risk if taken voluntarily. Risk perception also depends on trust. A risk created by a source you don’t trust will feel scarier. The anti-vaccination movement is thick with mistrust of government and the drug industry. Finally, risks that are human-made, like vaccines, evoke more worry than risks that are natural. Some parents who refuse to have their kids vaccinated say they are willing to accept the risk of the disease, because the disease is “natural.”

Still, shouldn’t our wonderful powers of reason be able to overcome these instinctive impediments to clear thinking? The neuroscience of fear makes clear that such hope is hubris. Work on the neural roots of fear by the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux of New York University, and others, has found that in the complex interplay of slower, conscious reason and quicker, subconscious emotion and instinct, the basic architecture of the brain ensures that we feel first and think second. The part of the brain where the instinctive “fight or flight” signal is first triggered — the amygdala — is situated such that it receives incoming stimuli before the parts of the brain that think things over. Then, in our ongoing response to potential peril, the way the brain is built and operates assures that we are likely to feel more and think less. As Professor LeDoux puts it in “The Emotional Brain”: “the wiring of the brain at this point in our evolutionary history is such that connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems.”

And so we have excessive fear of vaccines. But just as we are too afraid of some things, this same “feelings and facts” system works the other way too, sometimes leaving us inadequately concerned about bigger risks. A risky behavior you engage in voluntarily and that seems to afford plenty of benefit — think sun-tanning for that “nice, healthy glow” — feels less dangerous. A societal risk, well off in the future, tends not to trigger the same instinctive alarm — in part, because the hazard isn’t singling any one of us out, individually. This helps explain why concern over climate change is broad, but thin.

Though it may be prone to occasional errors, our risk-perception system isn’t all bad. After all, it has gotten us this far through evolution’s gantlet. But a system that relies so heavily on emotion and instinct sometimes produces risk perceptions that don’t match the evidence, a “risk perception gap” that can be a risk in itself. We do have to fear the dangers of fear itself.

In this remarkable era of discovery about how our brains operate, we have discovered a great deal about why the gap occurs, and we can — and should — put our detailed knowledge of risk perception to use in narrowing the risk-perception gap and reducing its dangers. As the Italian philosopher Nicola Abbagnano advised, “Reason itself is fallible, and this fallibility must find a place in our logic.” Accepting that risk perception is not so much a process of pure reason, but rather a subjective combination of the facts and how those facts feel, might be just the step in the human learning curve we need to make. Then, maybe, we’ll start making smarter decisions about vaccines and other health matters.

 

By DAVID ROPEIK, September 28, 2012

David Ropeik is an instructor at the Harvard Extension School and the author of “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.”