The best health advice from 2019

The Week Staff

Napping may boost your heart health. That's the finding of researchers in Switzer­land, who tracked 3,462 healthy adults for five years. Those who dozed for five minutes to an hour once or twice a week were 48 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack, stroke, or heart failure than those who never snoozed in the daytime. Napping longer or more often didn't deliver any additional health benefits. Lead author Na­dine Häus­ler says it's still unclear how napping might influence heart health. "Our best guess," she says, "is that a daytime nap just releases stress from insufficient sleep."

Eating mushrooms could lower your chances of developing memory problems in later life. A study involving 663 Chinese men and women found that those who ate one or two 5-ounce portions of mushrooms a week had a 43 percent lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment — a precursor to Alzheimer's — than participants who consumed less than one. Those who ate more than two portions had a 52 per­cent reduced risk. Lead author Lei Feng says the most likely explanation for this "dramatic effect" is that the fungi contain antioxidants that protect neurons from damage.

Having kids makes you happier — once they've grown up and moved out. Previous research has shown that, earlier in life, people with children are less happy and more prone to depression than childless peers, partly because they get less sleep and experience more stress. But a study of 55,000 Europeans found that parents were more likely to be happier when they got older, provided their offspring had flown the nest. Researchers say grown kids can offer parents more social and emotional connection, as well as care and other support. "There is no simple answer on whether children bring happiness," says lead author Christoph Becker. "It depends on which stage of life your children are at."

Running just once a week could significantly cut your risk of a premature death. Researchers in Australia looked at 14 studies that tracked the health of some 230,000 people for up to 35 years. Those who did any running at all were 27 percent less likely to die early. Surprisingly, the runners who ran longer distances or at a faster pace didn't see their risk decline any further — just 50 minutes of jogging a week was enough. "If you are physically inactive and don't have much time on your hands for exercise," says lead author Zeljko Pedisic, "running might just be the right activity for you."

NSAIDs such as aspirin and ibuprofen may help relieve depression. In an analysis of previous studies, researchers in China found that a daily dose of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) was 79 percent more effective than a placebo at eliminating depressive symptoms. Several studies have linked depression to brain and body inflammation, leading to speculation that an overactive immune system — which can cause inflammation — could be a factor. Alan Carson, who edited the study, says depression "may simply be the price we pay for having an immune system."

Northern Irish soil could have healing properties. Residents of the Boho Highlands have been using the alkaline dirt from a local churchyard as a folk remedy for 200 years. An analysis of this "sacred clay" revealed that it contains a previously unknown strain of Streptomyces bacterium that can halt the growth of four of the top six superbugs resistant to conventional antibiotics. Scientists believe such traditional medicines may prove to be a useful source of new antibiotics. "Some of these cures might have been perfectly effective," says co-author Gerry Quinn. The people "just didn't have any knowledge of the scientific principles or biochemistry behind them."

High-fiber foods can shrink your risk of dying early or developing a chronic condition. A scientific review commissioned by the World Health Organization noted that people who ate the most fiber — found in fruit, vegetables, and whole-grain cereals, pasta, and bread — were 15 to 30 percent less likely to die prematurely than those who ate the least. Heavy fiber consumers were also 16 to 24 percent less likely to suffer a stroke or develop heart disease, type 2 diabetes, or colorectal cancer. The optimal fiber intake was 25 to 29 grams a day; American adults consume an average of 15 grams.

Playing soccer may increase your risk of neurodegenerative disease. Researchers in Scotland compared the deaths of 7,676 male former pro soccer players with those of more than 23,000 people from the general population. The ex-players had a longer life expectancy overall, but a 3.5 times higher risk of dying from diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. While soccer players don't endure the same kind of crashing tackles that can cause degenerative brain disease in football players, frequent heading of the ball can alter the makeup of the brain. "It is not just the 'big hits' resulting in symptomatic concussions that increase the risk of neurologic disorders later in life," says neurologist Robert Stern.

Aspirin could significantly raise the chance of dangerous bleeds in the gut and skull. A daily dose of the blood-thinning drug can help prevent heart attacks and strokes for those with existing cardiovascular issues. But a review by British scientists of 13 previous studies found that for people with no issues, the cons outweigh the pros. Overall, aspirin reduced the risk of cardiovascular problems by 11 percent — but was linked to a 43 percent increase in significant bleeding events. Co-author Sean Lee Zheng says that before prescribing the drug, physicians should weigh "any small potential cardiovascular benefits [against] the real risk of severe bleeding."

Ultraprocessed foods can shorten your life. A French study found that every 10 percent increase in consumption of these foods — such as chicken nuggets, potato chips, and ready-to-eat meals — was linked to a 14 percent higher risk of early death. The researchers say some additives in ultraprocessed products are carcinogenic and that chemicals from packaging may leak into the foods. Co-author Mathilde Touvier recommends people "avoid these foods as much as they can."

Getting a tattoo can put toxic metal fragments in your body. German scientists examined 12 new steel tattoo needles with a high-powered microscope, both before and after use. They found that chromium and nickel particles break off during the tattooing process and become embedded in the skin. Those metals can travel through the body and build up in lymph nodes, potentially triggering an allergic reaction. Anyone thinking of getting inked, says lead author Ines Schreiver, should be aware they could be exposed to "impurities that might be allergenic or carcinogenic."

Vaping may damage blood vessels. Using MRI scans, University of Pennsylvania scientists monitored blood flow in 31 nonsmokers. After participants had several puffs on an e-cigarette without a flavor or nicotine, their blood flow was noticeably worse. Overall, vaping temporarily constricted arteries in the legs, heart, and brain by more than 30 percent. The researchers believe glycerol and propylene glycol, the core ingredients of vape fluid besides water, can irritate the lining of blood vessels. More than 2,400 people have been hospitalized over the past year for vaping-related lung illnesses, and at least 52 have died. Scientists suspect many had vaped illicit liquids containing THC — the psychoactive compound in ­marijuana — that had been cut with vitamin E acetate, a sticky oil that can cling to the lungs.

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Doctors' coats are often contaminated with dangerous bacteria and other pathogens. A review of previous studies found that up to 16 percent of the garments tested positive for MRSA, and up to 42 percent for Gram-­negative rods — antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can cause skin and blood in­fec­tions, sepsis, pneumonia, and other health issues. Researchers found that stethoscopes, phones, and digital tablets can also be contaminated with dangerous bacteria. Pre­vious studies have found that most Amer­i­can physicians wash their coats less than once a week; up to 17 percent go more than a month between washes.

White meat may raise your cholesterol levels as much as red meat. Researchers put 113 adults on three rotating monthlong diets: one centered on lean cuts of beef, the second on lean cuts of chicken, and the third on plant proteins. Half the participants' diets — irrespective of their main protein source — were high in saturated fats, while half were low. Overall, white meat raised levels of LDL cholesterol, the so-called bad cholesterol that clogs arteries, just as much as red meat — even when saturated fat levels were equal.

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