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The Wellnss JourneyLater today I will be interviewed (archived podcast here) on The Wellness Journey with Lynnis Woods-Mullins (@PraiseWorks), and we’ll be discussing the wellness aspect of social media. Wellness and social media? You bet. Social media is simply an extension of our already hard-wired nature to form social groups. The stronger (and for some people bigger) the groups, the more mental and physical advantages one has. There may even be a connection to longevity. Dang! Yes, being social is a part of the human evolution.

Our strongest advantage as a species is our ability to organize and manage large groups. We learned early on that we would be more powerful as one thousand than as simply one or a few, and so we took advantage of our capacity to cooperate and form civilizations. Now cooperation is not a purely human phenomenon, as many animal species do it, but in sheer capacity and sophistication, humans take the cake. We’ve expanded our social organization progressively from the beginning of existence, moving from hunter-gatherer tribes to the internet. Social media is just the next leg of that human social evolution.

Scientist have recently become increasingly interested in the social benefits to health. Several 2008-2009 studies showed promising results:

  • computer-cc36a4c4552c434fd40d98e79fa1dabeddea202a-s6-c10 (Copy)A 2008 study of stroke sufferers showed that being able to maintain valued group memberships played as important a role in positive recovery as an ability to overcome cognitive difficulties (e.g., problems with memory and language). After their stroke, people’s life satisfaction increased by 12% for every group membership that they were able to retain.
  • A 2009 study of residents entering a new care home. This showed that those who participated as a group in decisions related to the decoration of communal areas used those areas 57% more over the next month and were far happier as a result. In contrast, the use of space by residents in a control group declined by 60%. Moreover, these differences were still apparent three months later.
  • Another 2009 study looked at the impact of group interventions on the health and well-being of 73 people residing in care. After a period of six weeks the researchers found that people who took part in a reminiscence group showed a 12% increase in their memory performance, while those who received individual reminiscence or a control intervention showed no change.
  • Another 2009 study also studied nursing home residents and looked at the relationship between their sense of identity and well-being and the severity of their dementia. The study’s key finding was that a strong sense of identity associated with perceived membership of social groups, was a much better predictor of residents’ well-being than their level of dementia.

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Professor Jolanda Jetten from the University of Queensland, Australia commented on the findings from these studies: “New research shows just how important groups and social identity are to well-being. This is something that people often overlook in the rush to find medical solutions to problems associated with ageing, but it is time that these factors were taken much more seriously”.

And says Dr Catherine Haslam of the University of Exeter in the U.K.: “On the basis of what is now a very large body of research we would urge the medical community to recognize the key role that participation in group life can play in protecting our mental and physical health. It’s much cheaper than medication, with far fewer side effects, and is also much more enjoyable.”

Other studies that I have reported on in this blog also show the wellness benefits to social interactions. One study (2008) showed that people with large and strong social networks fared better following surgery—in healing time and extent. Another study (2008) showed that our sociability is actually a biological/neurological  trait, giving further evidence to its role and interdependence in human evolution.

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Another in 2009 which showed that repressed emotions can lead to greater risk of dying from a cardiac event, while a 2010 study showed that having strong social networks and interactions actually decreased death, in general, by 50%.

These studies simply confirm why using social media to remain connected, and thus in wellness, is the wisest practice people can adopt. Social media isn’t just digital narcissism, as some skeptics have defined it. It is real interactions, in real time, with real people (and if you really can’t tell the difference, then you really do need to get out more)—the perfect ingredients to rich social health and wellness. Keep Tweeting.

Good news for active adults–brisk walking improves memory by increasing the size of a brain region directly responsible for processing information to be stored.  This has promising implications for preventing age-related cognitive degeneration seen in Alzheimer’s disease.

The hippocampus region of the brain grew by 2% in study subjects that walked briskly.  The study, led by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, looked at 120 sedentary people, aged 55 to 80.  They were divided into two groups: Half began a program of walking for 40 minutes a day, three days a week to increase their heart rate; the others only did stretching and toning exercises.

Memory improved in both groups, showing that physical activity in general has cognitive effects.   Preliminary studies have shown that aerobic exercise leads to reduce brain atrophy in early-stage Alzheimer’s patients, and that walking leads to slight improvement on mental tests among older people with memory problems.

The hippocampus is known to shrink slightly in people as they age, and this is, in fact, what happened to the stretch-only group.  The brisk walk group, though, did show increases in hippocampal size, leading researchers to believe this physiological effect sustains memory.

Kirk Erickson, professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and thepaper’s lead author, said in a statement, “The results of our study are particularly interesting in that they suggest that even modest amounts of exercise by sedentary older adults can lead to substantial improvements in memory and brain health.

So get up and start walking, folks.  It’s never too late.  What you do today might just preserve your marbles for another couple decades.  So just do it–walk!..for the health of your hippocampus.

Another piece of evidence showing how genetics plays a instrumental role in shaping sexual orientation.  A recent study out of York University in Toronto showed that the ability to recognize faces, both in speed and accuracy, is a skill sharpened in women and homosexual men.  And to add an interesting twist–left-handed heterosexual men have quicker and more accurate face recognition than do right-handers.

The ability to recognize faces has been shown through imaging techniques to be a purely right-sided brain function in men, while women use both hemispheres.  This “doubling-up” of brain power allows women to scan their memories much more rapidly than men, making it easier for them to recognize people at cocktail parties.  Researchers believe that the same holds true for homosexual men–their brains likely use both left and right hemispheres when evaluating faces, accounting for their mirroring women’s abilities in this function.

Face recognition is complex.  It takes a number of brain regions, visual processes, and memory for recognition to take place.  Researchers studied this phenomenon by recruiting a sample group of homosexual men, heterosexual men and heterosexual women, of both left-handed and right-handed variety.  The volunteers were shown pictures of 10 faces and given time to try to memorize them. The photos were black and white, and digitally altered to remove ears, hair and blemishes, so as to eliminate the physical landmarks people often use to remember faces.  The 10 faces were then mixed with similarly altered images of 50 other people and flashed on a screen for just milliseconds apiece. The subjects’ job was to press a key when they saw a face they’d seen before.  The results were that women and homosexual men scored nearly the same, and both groups fared better than heterosexual men.  Homosexual women were not studied.

Genetics determines symmetry and asymmetry in body and brain.  For instance, previous studies have shown that gay men have a 39% greater chance of being left-handed than heteros (southpaw heteros performed better on face recognition than did righties, remember?).  Gay men also have a greater chance (~80%) of having a counter-clockwise hair whorl.

When it comes to brain morphology (shape), both women and homosexual men have two symmetrical halves, whereas heterosexual men and homosexual women have asymmetrical brain regions, with the right side being larger than the left.

What is unknown is if homosexual men are, in fact, using both brain regions when attempting to recognize faces.  The only way to know for sure would be to image the brain as it goes through the same experiment, but this would bring up some serious ethical considerations.

Either way, I find this research absolutely fascinating.  Despite some still believing it to be a lifestyle choice and not genetic, evidence points to homosexuality being a multi-factorial phenomenon.  Genetics, hormones, and environment all play a part in developing sexual orientation, many of them early in embryonic development.  Some have even proposed an evolutionary advantage to homosexuality being maintained in the population, despite its lowering reproductive success.

If genetics are involved, then there must be phenotypic differences that go beyond sexual preferences.  What are these differences?  How are they expressed?  Politically speaking, if we could recognize that sexual orientation is biologically determined, then it could lead to an advancement in equal protection rights for homosexuals and same-sex couples.

I also find this study interesting because, well, it explains my total lameness in not remembering people whom I’ve met in the past, some just days earlier.  Duh…I’m a little slow, um…er, uh…what’s your name?  Forgive me, I’m hetero–half brain, you know?

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