Glaucoma Awareness

Glaucoma is a disease that damages your eye’s optic nerve. It usually occurs when fluid builds up in the front part of your eye which increases the pressure in your eye, damaging the optic nerve. It can lead to blindness if not treated.

January is Glaucoma Awareness Month. It’s estimated that over 2.2 million Americans have glaucoma, but only half of those know they have it. Glaucoma is the second-leading cause of blindness in the world, according to the World Health Organization, and after cataracts, is the leading cause of blindness among African Americans. In the United States, more than 120,000 people are blind from glaucoma, accounting for between nine percent and 12 percent of all cases of blindness.

Everyone is at risk for glaucoma, from babies to senior citizens. Older people are at a higher risk for glaucoma but babies can be born with glaucoma (approximately one out of every 10,000 babies born in the United States). Young adults can get glaucoma, too. African Americans in particular are susceptible at a younger age.

The most common types of glaucoma — primary open-angle glaucoma and angle-closure glaucoma — have completely different symptoms.

Primary open-angle glaucoma signs and symptoms include:

  • Gradual loss of peripheral vision, usually in both eyes
  • Tunnel vision in the advanced stages

Acute angle-closure glaucoma signs and symptoms include:

  • Eye pain
  • Nausea and vomiting (accompanying the severe eye pain)
  • Sudden onset of visual disturbance, often in low light
  • Blurred vision
  • Halos around lights
  • Reddening of the eye

Both open-angle and angle-closure glaucoma can be primary or secondary conditions. They’re called primary when the cause is unknown and secondary when the condition can be traced to a known cause such as eye injury, medications, certain eye conditions, inflammation, tumor, advanced cataract or diabetes. In secondary glaucoma, the signs and symptoms can include those of the primary condition as well as typical glaucoma symptoms.

When to see your doctor

Don’t wait for noticeable eye problems before seeing a doctor. Primary open-angle glaucoma gives few warning signs until permanent damage has already occurred. Regular eye exams are the key to detecting glaucoma early enough to successfully treat the condition and prevent further progression.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends a comprehensive eye exam for all adults starting at age 40, and every three to five years after that if you don’t have any glaucoma risk factors. If you have other risk factors or you’re older than age 60, you should be screened every one to two years. If you’re African-American, your doctor likely will recommend periodic eye exams starting between ages 20 and 39.

In addition, a severe headache or pain in your eye, nausea, blurred vision, or halos around lights may be the symptoms of an acute angle-closure glaucoma attack. If you experience some or several of these symptoms together, seek immediate care at an emergency room or at an eye doctor’s (ophthalmologist’s) office right away.

Glaucoma is not curable, and vision lost cannot be regained. With medication and/or surgery, it is possible to halt further loss of vision. Since open-angle glaucoma is a chronic condition, it must be monitored for life. Diagnosis is the first step to preserving your vision – regular eye exams should be part of your personal wellness regimen, especially since there are a variety of other eye ailments that can afflict us. Through a regular eye exam, doctors can detect early warning signs for other diseases ranging from cancer to stroke.

 


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Is Facebook Making You Sick?

Chances are you’re reading this article on your laptop or a mobile device. Hopefully you’re not reading it late at night, because if you are, it may be making you sick.  That’s because the artificial light from computer and smart phone screens is interfering with our ability to sleep properly. And when we don’t sleep well, or enough, we fail to benefit from our body’s natural restorative abilities.

But that’s only one piece of the bad news relating to electronic gadgets and our health. For all it’s given us, modern technology also is hurting our physical and emotional health, and changing behaviors in adults and children in ways that will have far-reaching, yet still undetermined consequences.

Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness in humans and animals. It is produced in darkness. Researchers have determined that the blue light from our electronic devices affects melatonin production and melanopsin stimulation, which throws off our circadian rhythms, our internal body clock. This interrupts or prevents deep, restorative sleep, causing an increase in stress and depressive symptoms.

Research shows that interactive technologies such as video games, cell phones and the Internet might affect the brain differently than those which are “passively received,” such as TV and music. That’s even more meaningful when it comes to our kids.

Children’s brains are much more sensitive to electronics use than most of us realize. In fact, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t take much electronic stimulation to throw a sensitive and still-developing brain off track. Many parents mistakenly believe that interactive screen-time – such as the Internet or social media use, texting, emailing, and gaming — isn’t harmful, especially compared to passive screen time like watching TV. In fact, interactive screen time is more likely to cause sleep, mood, and cognitive issues, because of hyper-arousal and compulsive use.

Recent statistics show that 63 percent of American Facebook users log on to the site daily, while 40 percent of users log on multiple times a day. If you or your kids are spending a lot of time in chat rooms and on social-networking sites, a number of studies now suggest that this can be associated with depression, particularly in teens and preteens.

Internet addicts may struggle with real-life human interaction and a lack of companionship, and they may have an unrealistic view of the world. Some experts even call it “Facebook depression.” In a 2010 study, researchers found that many people ages 16 to 51 spent an inordinate amount of time online, and that they had a higher rate of moderate to severe depression. However, the researchers noted that it is not clear if Internet overuse leads to depression or if depressed people are more likely to use the Internet.

We all have our own reasons for using social media, but one of the main reasons we use it is for self-distraction and boredom relief. In essence, social media delivers reinforcement every time a person logs on. It may seem harmless to knock out a few emails before bed or unwind with a favorite movie, but by keeping our mind engaged, technology can trick our brain into thinking that it needs to stay awake. When surfing the web, seeing something exciting on Facebook, or reading a negative email, those experiences can make it hard to relax and settle into slumber. After spending an entire day surrounded by technology, our minds need time to unwind.

Why we need technology down time

Research into the use of technology produced other startling results, including sleep disorders and an increase in depressive symptoms from heavy cell phone use or the regular use of computers at night. Researchers have established that screen time:

  • Disrupts sleep and de-synchronizes the body clock. Just minutes of screen stimulation can delay melatonin release by several hours and desynchronize our body clock. Once the body clock is disrupted, all sorts of other unhealthy reactions occur, such as hormone imbalance and brain inflammation. Plus, high arousal doesn’t permit deep sleep, and deep sleep is how we heal.
  • Desensitizes the brain’s reward system. Many children are “hooked” on electronics. In fact, gaming releases so much dopamine — the “feel-good” chemical — that on a brain scan it looks the same as cocaine But when reward pathways are overused, they become less sensitive, and more and more stimulation is needed to experience pleasure. Meanwhile, dopamine is also critical for focus and motivation, so even small changes in dopamine sensitivity can wreak havoc on how well a child feels and functions.
  • Produces “light-at-night.” Light-at-night from electronics has been linked to depression and even suicide risk in numerous studies. Animal studies show that exposure to screen-based light before or during sleep causes depression, even when the animal isn’t looking at the screen. Sometimes parents are reluctant to restrict electronics use in a child’s bedroom because they worry the child will get upset — but to the contrary, removing light-at-night is protective.
  • Induces stress reactions. Both acute stress (fight-or-flight) and chronic stress produce changes in brain chemistry and hormones that can increase irritability. Cortisol, the chronic stress hormone, seems to be both a cause and an effect of depression — creating a vicious cycle. Additionally, both hyper-arousal and addiction pathways suppress the brain’s frontal lobe, the area where mood regulation actually takes place.
  • Fractures attention, and depletes mental reserves. Experts say that what’s often behind explosive and aggressive behavior is poor focus. When attention suffers, so does the ability to process one’s internal and external environment, so little demands become big ones. By depleting mental energy with high visual and cognitive input, screen time contributes to low reserves. One way to temporarily “boost” depleted reserves is to become angry, so meltdowns actually become a coping mechanism.
  • Reduces physical activity levels and exposure to “green time.” Research shows that time outdoors, especially interacting with nature, can restore attention, lower stress, and reduce aggression. So time spent with electronics reduces exposure to natural mood enhancers, as well as to chemicals which also keep us alert, and wake us up.

Most Americans admit to using electronics a few nights a week within an hour before bedtime. But to make sure technology isn’t harming your slumber, give yourself at least 30 minutes of gadget-free and TV–free transition time before hitting the hay. In fact, it’s even better if you can make your bedroom a technology-free zone. And just because you’re not using your cell phone before bed doesn’t mean that it can’t harm your sleep: Keeping a mobile within reach can still disturb slumber, thanks to the chimes of late-night texts, posts, emails, calls, or calendar reminders.

This is a growing and serious public health hazard that isn’t being adequately acknowledged and addressed by both the medical community and technology industries. About 72 percent of children ages six to 17 sleep with at least one electronic device in their bedroom, which leads to getting less sleep on school nights compared with other kids. The difference adds up to almost an hour per night, and the restful quality of their sleep is negatively affected too. To ensure a better night’s rest, parents should limit their kids’ technology use in the bedroom, and can be solid role models and improve their own health by doing the same.


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Stop blowing smoke – and vapor

Whether you’re an accomplished sports enthusiast or a weekend watcher, it was easy to get caught up in the excitement, drama and incredible teamwork on display in the MLB baseball Championship Series and the World Series.  And beyond the heartbreak, frustration, athleticism and celebration, there were no shortages of close-up shots of players and coaches spitting sunflower seeds, popping Bazooka gum bubbles, stuffing their cheeks with chewing tobacco, or placing pinches of smokeless tobacco in their mouths.

Paid television advertising for cigarettes might be controlled, but professional baseball is like a non-stop commercial for smokeless tobacco products . . . and kids notice and emulate their heroes. Researchers have discovered that about 3.5 percent of people aged 12 and older in the United States use smokeless tobacco — that’s about 9 million people. Use of smokeless tobacco was higher in younger age groups, with more than 5.5 percent of people aged 18 to 25 saying they were current users. About one million people age 12 and older started using smokeless tobacco in the year before the survey. About 46 percent of the new users were younger than 18 when they first used it.

The damages from smokeless tobacco products include throat, tongue, sinus, jaw, esophageal and mouth cancers, lesions, damage to teeth and gums, heart disease and stroke.

Additionally, startling numbers of young people start smoking cigarettes in their early teens and continue into adulthood. And the results are alarming – even with all we know about the perils and health risks associated with tobacco use, more than 45 million Americans still smoke cigarettes. There also are approximately 13.2 million cigar smokers in the United States, and 2.2 million who smoke tobacco in pipes.

More than half of cigarette smokers have attempted to quit for at least one day in the past year. Many of them turn to nicotine chewing gums or smoking-cessation drugs prescribed by their doctors. And over the past several years, the trend has been to vapes, or e-cigarettes, essentially nicotine-delivery systems that use a heated vapor that is inhaled by the consumer. These vapes have become hugely popular – they produce less second-hand smoke, are more discreet, and don’t contain the same high level of carcinogenic particulates found in regular tobacco. But they are still habit-forming, and their long-term use is suspect in terms of dangerous side effects.

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, and a good time to revisit the role tobacco products play in damaging health by contributing directly to lung cancer, other cancers and respiratory illnesses – diseases that also cost billions of dollars a year in lost-work-time and healthcare costs.

  • Tobacco contributes to 5 million deaths worldwide every year. For centuries, cigarettes have remained basically the same:  Tobacco rolled in paper. What makes them so deadly are the estimated 4,000 chemicals they give off when lit. Some of those chemicals, like arsenic, formaldehyde and lead can cause cancer and a long list of other deadly diseases.
  • Chewing tobacco comes as long strands of loose leaves, plugs, or twists of tobacco. Pieces, commonly called plugswads, or chew, are chewed or placed between the cheek and gum or teeth. The nicotine in the piece of chewing tobacco is absorbed through the mouth tissues. The user spits out the brown saliva that has soaked through the tobacco.
  • Snuff is used by placing a pinchdiplipper, or quid between the lower lip or cheek and gum. The nicotine in the snuff is absorbed through the tissues of the mouth. Moist snuff is also available in small, teabag-like pouches or sachets that can be placed between the cheek and gum. These are designed to be both “smoke-free” and “spit-free” and are marketed as a discreet way to use tobacco. Dry snuff is sold in a powdered form and is used by sniffing or inhaling the powder up the nose.
  • An e-cigarette is a battery-powered tube about the size and shape of a cigarette. A heating device warms a liquid inside the cartridge, creating a vapor you breathe in. Puffing on an e-cigarette is called “vaping” instead of “smoking.” E-cigarettes also make chemicals, but in much smaller numbers and amounts than tobacco cigarettes.
  • When you quit smoking or using products containing nicotine, risk of having a heart attack drops sharply after just one year, as does the risk of strokes and conditions such as ulcers, artery and respiratory disease, and cancers of the larynx, lung and cervix.

What you should know about e-cigarettes, or “vapes”

All e-cigarettes work basically the same way. Inside, there’s a battery, a heating element, and a cartridge that holds nicotine and other liquids and flavorings. Features and costs vary. Some are disposable. Others have a rechargeable battery and refillable cartridges.

The nicotine inside the cartridges is addictive. When you stop using it, you can get withdrawal symptoms including feeling irritable, depressed, restless and anxious. It can be dangerous for people with heart problems. It may also harm your arteries over time and contribute to respiratory ailments, heart disease and cancers. Additionally, the wide variety of non-nicotine flavors and additives found in e-cigarettes are now being tested, and researchers are finding dubious results, including danger to unborn children and reproductive systems, cancer risks, and the buildup of arterial plaque that can lead to heart disease and strokes.

Quitting is hard, but you can increase your chances of success with help. The American Cancer Society can tell you about the steps you may take to quit smoking, and provide resources and support that can increase your chances of quitting successfully. And if you have or know children, you’ll want to learn more about the dangers of alternative nicotine products, and how to help raise awareness and promote prevention.  To learn about available tools, call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 or visit www.cancer.org.


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

The Bones Have It

People say change is constant, and that’s certainly no exception when it comes to our bones.  New bone is made and old bone is broken down. When we’re young, our body makes new bone faster than it breaks down old bone, increasing bone mass. Most people reach their peak bone mass around age 30. After that, we lose more bone mass than we gain.

Osteoporosis is a condition that causes bones to become weak and brittle, making them easier to fracture or break. Our likelihood of developing osteoporosis depends on how much bone mass we attain by the time we reach age 30 and how rapidly we lose it after that. The higher our peak bone mass, the less likely we are to develop osteoporosis as we age.

Obviously, it’s important to take steps now so our bones will be healthy and strong throughout our lifetime.  Unless you have a time machine there’s no going back, so protecting what we have now is the smart play.

We can build strong bones by getting enough calcium and weight-bearing physical activity during the tween and teen years, when bones are growing the fastest. Young people in this age group have calcium needs that they can’t make up for later in life. In the years of peak skeletal growth, teenagers build more than 25 percent of adult bone. By the time teens finish their growth spurts around age 17, 90 percent of their adult bone mass is established.

Don’t Overdraw Your Calcium Bank

Since our bodies continually remove and replace small amounts of calcium from our bones, stemming the loss of calcium is important. After age 18, we can’t add more calcium to bones, but can try to maintain what is already stored to help our bones stay healthy.

Calcium is found in a variety of foods. Low-fat and fat-free milk and other dairy products are great sources of calcium. Tweens and teens can get most of their daily calcium from three cups of low-fat or fat-free milk, but they also need additional servings of calcium to get the 1,300 mg necessary for strong bones.

Other good sources of calcium include dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and bok choy.  Other sources of calcium include almonds, broccoli, kale, canned salmon with bones, sardines and soy products such as tofu. If you find it difficult to get enough calcium from your diet, ask your doctor about supplements.

There also are foods with calcium added, such as calcium-fortified tofu, orange juice, soy beverages, and breakfast cereals or breads. Adults or kids who can’t process lactose also can take calcium supplements, but should check with their physician to ensure compatibility with other medicines or conditions.

When muscles push and tug against bones during physical activity, bones and muscles become stronger. Weight-bearing exercises, such as walking, jogging, tennis and climbing stairs can help build strong bones and slow bone loss. So exercise, as well as proper nutrition, play vital roles in helping us build and maintain healthy bones at any age.

A number of additional factors can affect bone health.

  • Tobacco and alcohol use. Research suggests that tobacco use contributes to weak bones. Similarly, having more than two alcoholic drinks a day increases the risk of osteoporosis, possibly because alcohol can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb calcium.
  • Gender, size and age. You’re at greater risk of osteoporosis if you’re a woman, because women have less bone tissue than do men. You’re also at risk if you’re extremely thin (with a body mass index of 19 or less) or have a small body frame, because you may have less bone mass to draw from as you age. Also our bones become thinner and weaker as we age.
  • Race and family history. You’re at greatest risk of osteoporosis if you’re white or of Asian descent. In addition, having a parent or sibling who has osteoporosis puts you at greater risk — especially if you also have a family history of fractures.
  • Hormone levels. Too much thyroid hormone can cause bone loss. In women, bone loss increases dramatically at menopause due to dropping estrogen levels. Prolonged absence of menstruation before menopause also increases the risk of osteoporosis. In men, low testosterone levels can cause a loss of bone mass.
  • Eating disorders and other conditions. People who have anorexia or bulimia are at risk of bone loss. In addition, stomach surgery (gastrectomy), weight-loss surgery and conditions such as Crohn’s disease, celiac disease and Cushing’s disease can affect our body’s ability to absorb calcium.
  • Certain medications. Long-term use of corticosteroid medications, such as prednisone, cortisone, prednisolone and dexamethasone, are damaging to bone. Other drugs that may increase the risk of osteoporosis include aromatase inhibitors to treat breast cancer, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, methotrexate, some anti-seizure medications and proton pump inhibitors.

In summation, to help prevent or slow bone loss, include plenty of calcium in your diet, pay attention to vitamin D, include physical activity in your daily routine, and avoid smoking tobacco products or drinking too much alcohol. The health of our bones, in a manner of speaking, is in our own hands!


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Using Steroids Safely and Appropriately

The use of steroids and other natural and synthetic substances by professional athletes often is in the news.  Used primarily for building muscle mass and expanding strength and endurance, these drugs, many obtained illegally, give users an “edge” that is considered unfair.  Many Russian athletes were not allowed to compete in this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio due to their use of banned drugs, and controversy has swirled around famous baseball players, runners and biking legend Lance Armstrong over their use of steroids and other performance-enhancing supplements.  But there are many kinds of steroids, including those used by physicians to treat allergies, asthma, arthritis and many chronic illnesses.

Steroids, known medically as corticosteroids, can reduce inflammation associated with allergies, rashes or itching. They prevent and treat nasal stuffiness, sneezing, and runny nose due to seasonal or year-round allergies. They can also decrease inflammation and swelling from other types of reactions.

Systemic steroids are available in various forms as pills or liquids for serious allergies or asthma, locally acting nasal sprays for seasonal or year-round allergies, topical creams for skin allergies, or topical eye drops for allergic conjunctivitis.

Steroids are highly effective drugs for allergies, but they must be taken regularly, often daily, to be of benefit — even when you aren’t feeling allergy symptoms. In addition, it may take one to two weeks before the full effect of the medicine can be felt.

Steroids are used for reducing joint or bone inflammation and for battling osteoporosis. They also are known to increase recovery times in individuals dramatically. Cortisol is a hormone which is produced inside our body to help it handle stress. Cortisol is responsible for causing damage to muscle tissues and slowing down the time taken for a human body to recuperate. Steroids are known to regulate the production of this hormone when an individual’s body is stressed. This helps bodies to recover from sustained injuries a lot faster than normal and allows more stamina while an individual is exercising.

Of note, potential side effects from oral steroids may include insomnia, increased appetite and weight gain, high blood pressure, lowered immune system resistance, stomach irritation and water retention.

Anabolic steroids were developed in the late 1930s primarily to treat hypogonadism, a condition in which the testes do not produce sufficient testosterone for normal growth, development, and sexual functioning. The primary medical uses of these compounds are to treat delayed puberty, some types of impotence, and wasting of the body caused by HIV infection, cancer or other diseases.

The dangers of steroid abuse

When we take small, prescribed doses of steroids for a short time in response to an inflammation or allergic reaction, our bodies eliminate or flush most of the residual compounds. However, people who abuse anabolic steroids usually take them orally or inject them into the muscles, where they remain for longer periods of time, and travel to our brains and other organs. These doses may be 10 to 100 times higher than doses prescribed to treat medical conditions. Steroids are also applied to the skin as a cream, gel, or patch.

Anabolic steroids do not have the same short-term effects on the brain as do other abused drugs. The most important difference is that steroids do not trigger rapid increases in the brain chemical dopamine, which causes the “high” that drives people to abuse other substances. However, long-term steroid abuse can act on some of the same brain pathways and chemicals — including dopamine, serotonin, and opioid systems — that are affected by other drugs. This may result in a significant effect on mood and behavior.

Abuse of anabolic steroids also may lead to mental problems, such as:

  • Paranoid (extreme, unreasonable) jealousy
  • Extreme irritability
  • Delusions (false beliefs or ideas)
  • Impaired judgment

Extreme mood swings can also occur, including “roid rage” — angry feelings and behavior that may lead to violence. Additionally, anabolic steroid abuse may lead to serious, even permanent, health problems such as:

  • Kidney problems or failure
  • Liver damage
  • Enlarged heart, high blood pressure, and changes in blood cholesterol, all of which increase the risk of stroke and heart attack, even in young people

As with most medicines, supplements or drugs, steroids should be taken under the direction of a physician or medical professional. When used properly and as prescribed, they are incredibly effective and valuable. When abused or taken improperly, they can lead to a variety of negative side effects and behaviors with potentially long-term and life-threatening consequences.


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Shingles: A throwback you’d like to throw back!

One in three of all adults reading this article will develop shingles in their lifetime, usually after age 50. Not because you’re reading this article – but because when you were a child, you probably had chickenpox.

Shingles is the reactivation of a viral infection in the nerves to the skin that causes pain, burning, or a tingling sensation, along with an itch and blisters in the skin supplied by the affected nerve.  It is caused by the varicella zoster virus, or VZV — the same virus that causes chickenpox.  When the itchy red spots of childhood chickenpox disappear, the virus remains in a dormant state in our nerve cells, able to strike again. This second eruption of the chickenpox virus is called shingles or herpes-zoster.  Shingles is not caused by the same virus that causes genital herpes, a sexually transmitted disease.

Shingles occurs when an unknown trigger causes the virus to become activated.  It afflicts approximately one million Americans annually, and children are vulnerable, too. However, about half of all cases occur in men and women 60 years old or older.

People who develop shingles typically have only one episode in their lifetime, though it can strike a person a second or even third time. Since most of us had chickenpox as children, we’re at risk, even if the case was so mild that it may have passed unnoticed.  In the original exposure to VZV (chickenpox), some of the virus particles settle into nerve cells where they remain for many years in an inactive, hidden (latent) form.

When the VZV reactivates, it spreads down the long nerve fibers that extend from the sensory cell bodies to the skin. As the virus multiplies, a telltale rash erupts. With shingles, the nervous system is more deeply involved than it was during the bout with chickenpox, and the symptoms are often more complex and severe.

Incidence increases with age – shingles is 10 times more likely to occur in adults over 60 than in children under 10.  People with compromised immune systems, a natural consequence of aging, or from use of immunosuppressive medications such as prednisone are at increased risk of developing shingles.

What does shingles look like?

Shingles is a painful rash that develops on one side of the face or body. The rash forms blisters that typically scab over in seven to 10 days and clear up within two to four weeks.

Before the rash develops, people often have pain, itching or tingling in the area where the rash will develop. This may happen anywhere from one to five days before the rash appears. Most commonly, the rash occurs in a single stripe around either the left or the right side of the body. In other cases, the rash occurs on one side of the face. In rare cases (usually among people with weakened immune systems), the rash may be more widespread and look similar to a chickenpox rash. Shingles can affect the eyes and cause loss of vision.

Other symptoms of shingles can include fever, headache, chills and an upset stomach.

Shingles cannot be passed from one person to another. However, the virus that causes shingles, the varicella zoster virus, can be spread from a person with active shingles to another person who has never had chickenpox. In such cases, the person exposed to the virus might develop chickenpox, but they would not develop shingles.

The virus is spread through direct contact with fluid from the rash blisters caused by shingles.  A person with active shingles can spread the virus when the rash is in the blister-phase. A person is not infectious before the blisters appear. Once the rash has developed crusts, the person is no longer contagious.

Shingles is less contagious than chickenpox and the risk of a person with shingles spreading the virus is low if the rash is covered.

If you have shingles, here are some important steps to remember:

  • Keep the rash covered.
  • Avoid touching or scratching the rash.
  • Wash your hands oftento prevent the spread of varicella zoster virus.

Until your rash has developed crusts, avoid contact with:

  • Pregnant women who have never had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine;
  • Premature or low-birth-weight infants; and
  • People with weakened immune systems, such as people receiving immunosuppressive medications or undergoing chemotherapy, organ transplant recipients, and people with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection.

Reducing the chance of contracting shingles

Several antiviral medicines – acyclovir, valacyclovir, and famciclovir – are available to treat shingles. These medicines will help shorten the length and severity of the illness. But to be effective, they must be started as soon as possible after the rash appears.  Analgesics (pain medicine) may help relieve the pain caused by shingles. Wet compresses, calamine lotion, and colloidal oatmeal baths may help relieve some of the itching.

The only way to reduce the risk of developing shingles and the long-term pain from post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) – a condition that can afflict people after they’ve recovered from shingles – is to get vaccinated. Shingles vaccine (Zostavax®) reduces the risk of developing shingles and the long-term pain that can sometimes afflict those who have had shingles. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that people aged 60 years and older get one dose of shingles vaccine. Shingles vaccine is available in pharmacies and doctor’s offices.

Additionally, the chickenpox vaccine became available in the United States in 1995.  Immunization with the varicella vaccine (or chickenpox vaccine) – now recommended in the United States for all children between 18 months and adolescence – can protect people from getting chickenpox.  People who have been vaccinated against chickenpox are probably less likely to get shingles because the weak, “attenuated” strain of virus used in the chickenpox vaccine is less likely to survive in the body over decades.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Nod yes, not off, if you’re feeling sleepy

Some days, there’s more of the Sleepy Dwarf in us than we’d care to admit. Beyond the excuse of extremely active weekends and occasional late nights, we’ve gotten too used to feeling fatigued. We drag ourselves to work, school and activities with the promise that, next weekend – or when we take that last exam, get through this big project, or finish the season – we’ll get some much-needed sleep. But how much IS enough? Is five or six hours a night really cutting it for us?

The answer, for most human beings, is definitely “no.”  Everyone’s individual sleep needs vary. In general, most healthy adults require 16 hours of wakefulness and need an average of eight hours of sleep a night. However, some individuals are able to function without sleepiness or drowsiness after as little as six or seven hours of sleep. Others can’t perform at their peak unless they’ve slept 10 hours. And, contrary to common myth, the need for sleep doesn’t decline with age, although the ability to sleep for six to eight hours at one time may be reduced.

Sleep is essential for a person’s health and well-being, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). Yet millions of people do not get enough sleep and suffer related consequences relating to performance, irritability, accidents and reduced productivity. Surveys conducted by the NSF revealed that at least 40 million Americans suffer from over 70 different sleep disorders, and 60 percent of adults report having sleep problems a few nights a week or more. Most of these problems go undiagnosed and untreated. In addition, more than 40 percent of adults experience daytime sleepiness severe enough to interfere with their daily activities at least a few days each month, with 20 percent reporting problem sleepiness a few days a week or more.

Psychologists and other scientists who study the causes of sleep disorders have determined problems directly or indirectly tied to abnormalities in the brain and nervous, cardiovascular and immune systems, and with metabolic functions. Furthermore, unhealthy conditions, disorders and diseases can also cause sleep problems, including:

  • Pathological sleepiness, insomnia and accidents
  • Hypertension and elevated cardiovascular risks (including stroke)
  • Emotional disorders (depression, bipolar disorder)
  • Obesity
  • Metabolic syndrome and diabetes
  • Alcohol and drug abuse

Though common, not everyone who is tired has a sleep disorder. There is a lot we can do to get a better night’s sleep, feel refreshed when we awake, and remain alert throughout the day. It’s called “sleep hygiene” and refers to those practices, habits, and environmental factors that are critically important for sound sleep.

We all have a day/night cycle of about 24 hours called the circadian rhythm. It greatly influences when we sleep and the quantity and the quality of our sleep. The more stable and consistent our circadian rhythm, the better our sleep. This cycle may be altered by the timing of various factors, including naps, bedtime, exercise, and especially exposure to light (from traveling across time zones to staring at television or a laptop in bed at night).

Aging also plays a role in sleep and sleep hygiene. After the age of 40 our sleep patterns change, and we have many more nocturnal awakenings than in our younger years. This not only directly affects the quality of our sleep, but also interacts with any other condition that may cause arousals or awakenings, like the withdrawal syndrome that occurs after drinking alcohol close to bedtime. Additionally, psychological stressors like deadlines, exams, marital conflict, and job crises may prevent us from falling asleep or wake us from sleep throughout the night.

Here are 10 sleep hygiene tips to help us relax, fall asleep, stay asleep, and get better sleep so we wake up refreshed and alert:

  1. Avoid watching TV, eating, and discussing emotional issues in bed. The bed should be used for sleep and sex only. When we associate the bed with other activities it often becomes difficult to fall asleep.
  2. Minimize noise, light, and temperature extremes during sleep with ear plugs, window blinds, or an electric blanket or air conditioner. Even the slightest nighttime noises or luminescent lights can disrupt the quality of our sleep. Try to keep the bedroom at a comfortable temperature — not too hot (above 75 degrees) or too cold (below 54 degrees).
  3. Try not to drink fluids after 8 p.m. This may reduce awakenings due to urination.
  4. Avoid naps if possible, but if you do nap, make it no more than about 25 minutes about eight hours after you awake.
  5. Do not expose yourself to bright light if you need to get up at night. Use a small night-light instead.
  6. Nicotine is a stimulant and should be avoided, particularly near bedtime and upon night awakenings. Smoking tobacco products before bed, although it may feel relaxing, is actually putting a stimulant into our bloodstream.
  7. Caffeine is also a stimulant and is present in coffee (100-200 mg), soda (50-75 mg), tea (50-75 mg), and various over-the-counter medications. Caffeine should be discontinued at least four to six hours before bedtime. But note that if we consume large amounts of caffeine and cut ourselves off too quickly, we may get headaches that could keep us awake.
  8. Although alcohol is a depressant and may help us fall asleep, the metabolic machinery that clears it from our body when we are sleeping causes a withdrawal syndrome. This withdrawal causes awakenings and is often associated with nightmares and sweats.
  9. A light snack may seem sleep-inducing, but a heavy meal too close to bedtime interferes with sleep. Stay away from protein and stick to carbohydrates or dairy products. Milk contains the amino acid L-tryptophan, which has been shown in research to help people go to sleep. So milk and cookies or crackers (without chocolate) may be useful and taste good as well.
  10. Do not exercise vigorously just before bed, especially if you are the type of person who is aroused by exercise. If possible, it’s best to exercise in the morning or afternoon (preferably an aerobic workout, like running or walking).

We know when we’re tired, but doing something about the negative effects of fatigue and sleeplessness requires focus, discipline and often, professional assistance. Seek help if you can’t seem to get the sleep you need.  And if you’re just afraid of missing something, wake up. If you don’t want to morph from chronically Sleepy to permanently Grumpy, get some rest!

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Getting healthier is all in the wrist

When we were kids, pedometers were pretty cool . . . right up there with Dick Tracy two-way communication wristwatches, which weren’t real, but we knew they would be, some day. That day came and went with a yawn – people (the Boomers) really didn’t care that much. But then millennials took over the world, geeky became trendy, mobile phones changed our universe irrevocably, and personal fitness took center stage. So the marketing wizards figured out how to put chic back on our wrist and in our pockets by combining technology, health and wellness, and 20-somethings’ love of gadgets.

One of the oldest fitness gadgets is the pedometer. This simple device counts a person’s steps by detecting the motion of his or her hands or hips. Used originally by sports and physical fitness enthusiasts, pedometers are popular as an everyday exercise counter and motivator.

Today there are apps included on your mobile devices such as Apple Health for iOS and Google Fit for Android. And you can download even more apps to measure heart rate, track calories, set calendars, and engage step counters. There are related yoga and meditation apps, and apps for tracking where and how long you run, how many times you hydrated, calorie counters, when you should expect your period, when you took your medicine, how long you slept, and much more.

Function has replaced style for devices worn on the wrist. Devices like the Fitbit – which basically are just fancy pedometers – track steps, though the more sophisticated ones can detect things like heart rate, and sleep (how often you wake, tossing and turning, etc.). These can be synced to your phone and/or computer for tracking and analyzing data. Other popular wrist-worn devices include those from Jawbone, Garmin, Mio, and even Microsoft. The list continues to grow.

Finally, there also are “smart scales,” weight counters you step on, just like in the old days. These use WiFi and Bluetooth technology to sync weight results with your tablet, computer, phone or device. This allows you to integrate results in tracking and reporting programs. These modern scales are especially useful for helping physicians monitor weight loss or gain for chronically ill patients, shut-ins or people who can’t easily get to medical facilities. The results are sent via phone lines to a monitoring location, where technicians and nurses can identify red flags and call the patient or his or her doctor for an intervention.

The bottom line is that anything that helps you exercise more, set goals and measure your progress is good. But trends change, and people lose interest in their devices as new ones come along, and when they see it still requires work. And, sure, you could simply write down your numbers on a pad . . .  but what fun is that?

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Fending off the Zika virus

Thanks to the incessant coverage of the U.S. presidential nominating process, the Zika virus alarm bells being sounded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been temporarily overshadowed. But we are getting closer to the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro this August. In addition to the superb athletics, people will be buzzing about Zika, which has been far more widespread in South America than in North America. Cases have been reported here in Connecticut now, and people have to be cautious and concerned.

The Zika virus is spread to people primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito. While this mosquito species is not currently present in Connecticut, a closely related species, Ae. albopictus, the Asian tiger mosquito, and related species are and may become carriers of the disease in Connecticut.

The Ae. aegypti, also common known as the Yellow fever mosquito, is found throughout tropical regions of the world and are the same mosquitoes that spread dengue and chikungunya viruses. Mosquitoes become infected with the Zika virus when they bite a person already infected with the virus. Infected mosquitoes can then spread the virus to other people through bites.

Symptoms include fever, rash, joint pain, and conjunctivitis (red eyes). According to the CDC, illness is usually mild with symptoms lasting several days to a week — deaths are rare. There is no vaccine to prevent or medicine to treat Zika virus infection; however there is medication to treat some of the symptoms.

People are cautioned to contact their health care provider if they develop symptoms after returning from areas where Zika virus has been identified.  Of enormous concern, Zika virus can spread from a pregnant woman to her fetus, which can cause serious birth defects. Because of this, pregnant women should not travel to areas where Zika is present. Zika virus can also be spread from men to women by sexual contact.

Zika virus was first discovered in 1947 and is named after the Zika forest in Uganda. In 1952, the first human cases of Zika were detected and since then, outbreaks of Zika have been reported in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. Zika outbreaks have probably occurred in many locations. In May 2015, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) issued an alert regarding the first confirmed Zika virus infection in Brazil, and on Feb 1, 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika virus a public health emergency of international concern. Transmission has been reported in many other countries and territories, especially in Latin America. Brazil has confirmed 2,844 cases of Zika in pregnant women.

Avoid infection by preventing mosquito bites. Use insect repellent according to label instructions, wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants and hats, empty any items around your property that can hold water, and use air conditioning or window/door screens. It is important to practice these protective measures when traveling to areas where Zika virus is found, and these are useful steps to help reduce mosquito and insect bites in general.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

The Main Event: Vegan vs. Vegetarian

In this corner, at five feet, four inches, weighing 130 pounds and eating only fruit, vegetables, eggs, dairy products, and grains we have our challenger, Veggie Betty. In the opposite corner, at five feet five inches, eating only grains, fruit and vegetables and tipping the scales at 125 is our current champion, the queen of clean, Vegan Vicky. We’re looking for an apples-to-apples fight over the advantages and benefits of not ingesting meat and fish, and the differences between these two philosophies. Now, at the bell, come out arguing, and may the healthiest eater win!

Eating healthfully is a battle, no doubt. But both of these contestants are winners – people following vegetarian and vegan diets tend to live longer, have fewer health issues and generate less negative impact on the environment. The real battle is about staying healthy, but the debate over established and faddy diets and the advantages of veganism over vegetarianism rages on.

The term vegetarian generally means a person who does not consume animal products; this includes land and sea animals. Most vegetarians generally do consume eggs and dairy products (milk products). Vegetarian diets are considered excellent dietary methods for controlling weight, are heart-healthy, and excellent for controlling and preventing diabetes.

On the other hand, vegans eliminate all animal and dairy products (including eggs and honey) from their diet, as well as anything made with gelatin, which comes from animal bones and hooves. Vegans load up on fruits, vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Research has found a low-carb vegan diet reduces cholesterol levels, plus risk for developing heart disease.

But since animal products are the most convenient sources of protein and iron, vegans have a harder time getting an equal fix and have to work harder at balancing their diet through protein-packed alternatives such as lentils, black beans and soy products, and by increasing iron absorption by pairing foods rich in iron with foods rich in vitamin C, such as leafy vegetables and citrus. As a warning, vegans often suffer from Vitamin B12 deficiencies, so should consult their physician or nutritionist to ensure a healthy balance and determine if supplements are needed.

Vegetarians eliminate most animal products from their diet, too, but typically eat dairy and eggs. Like vegans, vegetarians consume a lot of fruits and vegetables, leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. But unlike vegans, According to the American Heart Association, there is no single vegetarian eating pattern.

For example, a lactovegetarian eats plant-based foods, cheese, and dairy, while a lacto-ovovegetarian (lacto-ovo) eats all of the above and eggs. There are also semi-vegetarians, or people who don’t eat red meat but eat chicken and fish with their plant-based foods, dairy, and eggs. Most vegetarians are lacto-ovo.

Vegetarians have long been hailed as the healthiest eaters. A study published by the American Heart Association found people who mostly adhere to a pro-vegetarian diet (70 percent of food intake is derived from plants) were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease. And research  associates this particular diet with reduced risk for certain types of cancer, high blood pressure, and early death.

And again, like vegans, maintaining a mostly plant-based diet is beneficial to the environment. One cow’s annual output of the greenhouse gas methane is equivalent to the emissions generated by a car burning 235 gallons of gasoline. And the amount of feed necessary to raise beef, chicken and pork requires an enormous amount of energy and resources, including fossil fuels, medicine and water.

Until recently, the benefits of vegetarianism and veganism were more anecdotal than clinically proven. However, over the past couple of decades numerous studies have indicated that a person who adopts a vegan or vegetarian diet will:

  • Have a lower body weightOne study found that those who continue eating meat will put on more weight over a five year period, compared to those who switched over to vegetarianism. The same study found that vegans put on even less weight as they get older, compared to vegetarians and meat eaters. The study looked at 22,000 meat eaters, fish eaters, vegetarians, and vegans.
  • Have better cholesterol levels– Scientists have demonstrated that a vegetarian diet made up of specific plant foods can lower cholesterol as effectively as a drug treatment. The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, compared a diet of known cholesterol-lowering, vegetarian foods to a standard cholesterol-reducing drug called lovastatin.
    The diet reduced levels of LDL the ‘bad’ cholesterol known to cause clogging in coronary arteries — in participants by almost 29 percent, compared to a 30.9 percent decrease in the lovastatin participants. The diet consisted of a combination of nuts (almonds), soy proteins, viscous fiber (high-fiber) foods such as oats and barley and a special margarine with plant sterols (found in leafy green vegetables and vegetable oils).
  • Live longer– Several studies have shown that vegans and vegetarians have a much lower risk of becoming obese, developing diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular diseases. All these conditions and diseases reduce one´s life expectancy.
  • Have a lower risk of developing cancer– Several studies have shown a reduced risk of developing many different types of cancer among vegans and vegetarians, compared to meat eaters. The study also found, however, that vegetarians have a higher risk of developing cancer of the colon.
  • Have a lower risk of developing several diseases– A 2012 article published in Food Technology documented that plant-based diets either reduce or completely eliminate people’s genetic propensity to developing long-term diseases including diabetes type 2, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Additionally, plant-based diets have shown to be effective in treating diseases like Multiple Sclerosis.

Vegetarian food is generally lower in fat, especially saturated fats, and much higher in fiber, than animal based foods. However, a vegetarian, like a meat eater, has to watch his or her intake of calories, snack foods, refined carbohydrates, whole milk dairy products, and non-meat junk foods.

So whichever path you are contemplating, a gradual change into vegetarianism or veganism works better as a general lifestyle change and longer-term strategy. Some people find that sudden changes to their eating patterns may have unpleasant consequences for their digestive systems, such as irritable bowel and other GI-related maladies. A healthful, gradual change includes increasing your intake of vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans, lentils), and whole grains, while cutting down on your intake of meats and fish.

Additionally, the American Dietetic Association offers these tips for people who want to convert to vegetarianism or veganism:

  • Select whole-grain products, including whole wheat bread, wild/brown rice, and whole-grain cereals
  • Make sure your diet is varied
  • Choose low- or non-fat dairy products (if you wish to continue consuming dairy)
  • Do not eat more than three or four egg yolks per week
  • Plan ahead when you go shopping
  • Read the food labels carefully when you are out shopping
  • Find out where specialty stores that cater to healthy eating are located, and try shopping there.

Fortunately, there is much information available on these diets. And anyone contemplating a significant dietary change should touch base with their physician and get their baseline numbers to help chart progress. Ultimately, though, everyone who participates is a winner!

For more information on plant-based diets, visit Ornish Lifestyle Medicine and Dr. McDougall’s Health & Medical Center.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!