News Briefs: Sleep & Mental Decline; Antidepressants; Boosting Mental Acuity

News and views that affect your mind, mood and memory.

Poor Quality of Sleep Linked to Mental Decline

Fitful, unrefreshing sleep takes a toll on the brain. That’s the conclusion reached by scientists who studied the sleep habits and mental acuity of more than 2,800 men around the U.S. The participants, whose average age was 76, were provided with a wrist monitor that recorded their sleep patterns for five nights and given a battery of tests designed to measure attention and executive function (which involves such skills as decision-making, abstract thinking, planning, and troubleshooting). According to a report published in the April 2014 issue of Sleep, participants with the poorest sleep quality experienced a 40 to 50 percent in-creased risk of significant decline in executive function. The change was the equivalent of about five years of aging. Length of sleep did not appear to affect mental ability.

Psychological Side Effects of Antidepressants are Common

The psychological side effects of antidepressant medications, such as thoughts of suicide, emotional numbness, and sexual difficulties, are much more common than previously thought. Researchers surveyed 1,829 individuals who had taken antidepressant medications at some time in the previous five years. Although 82 percent of respondents said that antidepressants had helped relieve their depression, they also reported a laundry list of serious psychological side effects associated with the medications. More than a third of respondents reported suicidal feelings, 60 percent said they felt the medications left them “feeling emotionally numb,” 62 percent said they had experienced “sexual difficulties,” 52 percent reported “feeling not like myself,” 42 percent experienced a “reduction in positive feelings,” 39 percent reported “caring less about others,” and 55 percent said they had experienced “withdrawal effects” when they stopped the medications. “One in 10 people in some countries are now prescribed antidepressants each year,” said the lead author of the study, which was published in the Feb. 3, 2014 issue of Psychiatry Research. “Effects such as feeling emotionally numb and caring less about other people are of major concern. Our study also found that people are not being told about this when prescribed the drugs.”

A Brain-Challenging Job May Boost Mental Acuity in Retirement

People who work at mentally stimulating jobs are more likely to experience slower declines in memory after they retire, according to a study published online March 17, 2014 in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology. Scientists analyzed data on 4,200 older participants in a long-term retirement study who had been interviewed every two years before and after they retired, over a span of 18 years. The participants, most of whom had been employed in the same type of work for 25 years before retiring, were asked to describe mental demands related to their work, such as developing strategies or making decisions. The study showed that at the time of retirement, memory scores among participants differed only slightly, but that 15 years after retirement, participants who had worked in mentally challenging jobs scored more than 50 percent higher on memory tests than people employed in less challenging jobs. “Midlife is the point at which people really need to pay attention to their brain health,” the study author said. “There are all kinds of things you can do to maintain your mental activity in midlife, outside of work.”

Stroke Risk Rises Following A Shingles Episode

Risk for stroke soars in the weeks following an episode of shingles, a painful skin rash caused by a resurgence of the virus that causes chicken pox. In the first month after the onset of shingles, patients have a 63 percent increased risk of a stroke compared to healthy individuals, according to a report published online April 3, 2014 in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. The risk, which is thought to be linked to inflammation and changes in the walls of blood vessels associated with the virus, declines over the following five months. The researchers found that antiviral medications taken during a shingles attack significantly reduced stroke risk. An estimated 1 million American adults suffer from shingles every year.

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