Multiple studies show that people who volunteer experience better physical health, reduced pain and disability and less depression than those who don’t. Some attribute the benefits to feeling needed, developing new relationships and having a growth experience, but science says there’s also a physiological component. Scans show that the brain structures that are activated when you get a reward, such as food or sex, are the same ones that are activated when you give, says Jordan Grafman, PhD, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. "In fact, they’re activated more." And all it takes is a few hours of volunteer work a week to kick them into high gear. To find volunteer opportunities near you, visit .
Need to concentrate? A new study in Psychological Science suggests that spending time in nature can boost your brainpower. When researchers tested the memory and attention of volunteers before and after an activity, the subjects performed significantly better after strolling in a park than they did after walking on city streets. What’s more, the volunteers increased their test scores after simply looking at nature photos. Urban environments may require the brain to work hard, while nature"or reproductions of it"stimulate the brain without taxing it, say researchers.
But wait 20 minutes, according to the MDs behind the hit TV show . After drinking java, tea or any other acidic beverage, rinse your mouth with water and then wait 20 minutes before you put a brush anywhere near your teeth. Otherwise you could be brushing the enamel off your teeth while it’s still soft from the acid"and once the enamel is gone, it’s gone for good. Dry brushing after 20 minutes will reduce tartar buildup by 60 percent and the risk of bleeding gums by half. Then follow up with "wet" brushing"with traditional toothpaste"for that minty clean feeling.
The next time you’re stuck on a conference call, draw a picture. People who doodle while listening to a recorded message recall 29% more information than those who only take notes, according to a study in Applied Cognitive Psychology. Simple activities, such as drawing, may stop you from daydreaming, keeping your mind focused on the task at hand, say researchers.
Growing scientific evidence indicates that friendships and extensive social networks can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease, ward off depression and make us less susceptible to the ravages of old age. The Harvard Nurses’ Health Study, for instance, found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to become physically debilitated as they grew older.
You’ve probably heard that keeping a gratitude journal increases happiness, but what about recording every time you give someone a compliment, hold the elevator door open or let a car merge during rush hour? When Japanese researchers asked a group of adults to keep track of every act of kindness they performed for a week, they found that study participants’ happiness increased significantly compared to both when they started and a control group. Already happy? Even better. People who were happier to start with became even happier, kinder and more grateful by jotting down their good deeds.
Scientists at the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that when people listened to music they found joyful, their blood vessels widened by 26 percent. Such expansion means that the protective chemical nitric oxide has been released, which reduces the risk of blood clots and hardened arteries, says researcher Michael Miller, MD. On the other hand, hearing music that listeners described as anxiety-causing narrowed blood vessels by six percent and produced artery harming chemicals. The Rx: Listen to music that boosts your mood at least three times a week.
Women who eat too quickly and until they’re full are up to three times more likely to be obese"regardless of how many calories they consume"than those who take their time, according to a Japanese study in the British Medical Journal. Put down your fork between bites and concentrate on chewing each morsel of food until it can be swallowed with ease. Slowing down will allow your brain to realize you’re full before you’ve had a chance to polish off your plate.
During the 1990s, pharmacologist David Bailey, PhD, of the University of Western Ontario, discovered that grapefruit juice promotes the absorption of certain medications, potentially turning normal doses into overdoses. Now Bailey reports that other common juices"including orange and apple juice"decrease the absorption of some drugs, like the antihistamine fexofenadine, which could wipe out their benefits. Since other juices may also pose a problem, it’s safest to swallow all medicine with water"and steer clear of fruit juice within four hours of taking your pills.
Scientists have known for some time that happy people live longer because their good spirits help protect them from illness. The new twist is that happiness is socially contagious: You can catch it-or its opposite-from the people close to you. Analyzing the social networks of the participants in the Framingham Heart Study, researchers at the University of California discovered distinct clusters of happy and unhappy people. "People who are surrounded by many happy people are the most likely to become happy themselves in the future," remarked researcher Nicholas Christakis, MD, a professor of medical sociology at Harvard.
Skipping the floss can lead to gum disease, which puts you at risk for more debilitating illnesses. "Gum disease increases blood sugar, making diabetes more difficult to control," says Susan Karabin, DDS, president of the American Academy of Periodontology. And because diabetes weakens the immune system, it hampers the body’s ability to fight other diseases. Poor flossing habits also increase your risk for developing heart disease. People with gum disease have big accumulations of plaque in their mouths that can seep into the bloodstream," Karabin says. "The bacteria can injure the inner surface of blood vessels and lead to the development of arterial plaque, which clogs vessels, causing heart disease and stroke." The American Dental Association recommends cleaning between teeth with floss (or another interdental cleaner) once a day.
Here’s a free fix that puts money in your pocket: Retirees who keep working part time experience fewer health problems than those who go from 40 hours a week to zero hours, according to a University of Michigan study that followed 12,189 retirees. Working reduced hours, known as bridge employment, helps maintain structure in life and provides a social outlet and a financial cushion, the authors say. These important factors are all known to boost physical and mental health.