Sunday, October 4th13.7°C
Your Mental Health

Telomere test

Do you know whether or not you have short telomeres? Strange question, but knowing the answer may provide some insight into the state of your health or your risk of developing certain health problems in the future. 

Telomeres are part of our genetic code – often likened to the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces. They seem to protect the ends of chromosomes and keep cells from aging too quickly. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter and once they are too short, the cell can no longer divide. In healthy cells, telomeres also rebuild. 

Many studies have linked unusually short telomeres to health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and chronic stress. 

Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn is a researcher at the University of California in San Francisco. She won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2009 for her work on telomeres.

As scientific understanding around telomeres and their links to health issues has increased, there has been some demand for a test to measure them. Dr. Blackburn has developed such a test and also founded a company to market it. 

Some in the research community doubt the usefulness of measuring telomeres because it is not a test for a specific health issue or disease. In spite of these critiques, Dr. Blackburn believes the test could be a useful tool for patients and doctors alike – comparing it to a check engine light in a vehicle. If your test showed you had shorter than normal telomeres, it may warrant doing some other medical investigating, and could be an indicator that some preventive measures are needed.

Healthy cells restore their own telomeres with the enzyme telomerase, and there may be ways to increase its action in the cell. Some preventive measures such as exercise, healthy food choices, losing excess weight and reducing stress could help to prevent telomeres from getting shorter or even restore those that have already declined. 

More studies continue into the connections between telomeres and mental and physical health and may prove more concrete cause and effect relationships. In the meantime, there will be a test on the market soon. For a few hundred dollars, interested people could learn the answer to the strange question of whether they have short or long telomeres.  

Maybe this will not be a specific predictor of disease or length of life, but a telomere test could be part of a larger health picture and may move us further along the way to preventive healthcare rather than simply interventional healthcare.


Anxiety in children

All children experience fears as they grow up – it is simply part of the developmental process and a natural reaction to a great big world not yet understood.

When children begin avoiding the things and situations that scare them, the fears can seriously interfere with participation in everyday activities. For some, normal fears about new situations or experiences can become a more serious and long-lasting problem if they develop into an anxiety disorder.

It has long been thought that avoidance behaviour and anxiety disorders go hand in hand. A 2013 study out of the Mayo Clinic is confirming this when it comes to children.

More than 800 children between the ages of seven and 18 took part in this study, which dealt specifically with tendencies to avoid feared situations. After taking data from both the children themselves and their parents, researchers found that measuring avoidance could also predict the future development of an anxiety disorder.

It turns out that children who avoid feared situations are likely to have anxiety.

In this study (published in the journal Behavior Therapy), children who showed avoidance behaviours at the beginning of the study period were more likely to be anxious a year later.

Researchers are pleased because the tools developed for this study may become useful in identifying children who are at risk for an anxiety disorder and could help parents and professionals to manage fears before they become truly problematic in the life of a child.

Aside from predicting the likelihood of anxiety, this study also showed that cognitive behavior therapy to reduce avoidance behaviour truly helped. Twenty-five anxious children were surveyed after receiving cognitive behaviour therapy to slowly expose them to feared situations. Their avoidance decreased by half.

This study has created some useful tools and also proven a long-held belief about the connection between avoidance and anxiety. It serves as a good reminder for parents dealing with fear in children as well.

While we all want to protect our kids and should do what we can to keep them safe, it is not always in their best interest to shield them from every fear or endlessly accommodate them if they do not want to try a new thing or face a particular situation.

Although we may help them to feel better in the short term, when we accommodate our children in this way we can serve to cement fears. Instead of shielding our children in a helpful way, we may hinder them from learning to manage the fears that are part of life.

If you think your child’s fears have already gone beyond what is normal, speak with your doctor. Proven techniques do exist to help alleviate anxiety even in children and dealing with it at a young age could save years of difficulty.

Maternal thought habits

Since depression is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide, there is an ongoing quest to better understand the disease.

Although understanding and treatment options have improved dramatically over the past few decades, there is still much we simply don’t know. If we could unlock the causes of the disease we would be much better equipped to prevent it.

One theory about the cause of depression deals with a person’s cognitive style. Negative belief systems about self, the world, and future could impact the way we interpret life events and ultimately underlie the development of depression. Studies have shown negative cognitive style is associated with current and future episodes of depression.

Based on this theory, cognitive behaviour therapy does include cognitive style as one of its target areas. Although we may not be able to remove stress and negative experiences from our lives, we could potentially change our interpretation of these events.

But where do we get our cognitive style in the first place? Studies have shown there are likely genetic and environmental influences and there has been speculation about the role of maternal modeling on the way our thinking patterns develop throughout our lives - although studies of this have been inconsistent so far.

One study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry took a closer look at the maternal/offspring connection when it comes to cognitive style. Results showed a positive association between maternal and offspring cognitive styles.

Using data from 4,000 mothers in the UK, researchers investigated maternal cognitive style during their pregnancy as well as the cognitive style of their children at age 18.

Perhaps it’s not surprising to imagine that the way our mothers thought or interpreted events could have impacted the way we do. For genetic and environmental reasons it makes sense. What the correlation suggests is that if we can help mothers to improve their cognitive style, it could be helpful to both mother and child in the long run.

This study is interesting but raises as many questions as it answers. It is by no means conclusive evidence that it is the mother’s behavior, as opposed to her genetics, that gives rise to the negative cognitive style. It also would remain to be demonstrated that altering the mother’s cognitive style would change the child’s cognitive style or prevent depression in either parent of child. I am sure research to answer these questions will follow in the years to come. Unfortunately, this type of research is very expensive and since there are no medications involved there is lack of industry funding for such research.

For mothers, just one more thing to add to the new-parent preparation handbook – improve your thought habits and you could potentially prevent your children from developing depression when they become adults.

Cannabis and driving

After many senseless deaths and serious injuries as a result of alcohol impaired driving, Canada has implemented strict laws prohibiting driving under the influence of even a relatively small amount of alcohol.

In BC, it is well publicized that a blood alcohol content of even 0.05 could result in the loss of your license as well as some pretty stiff fines. Hardly anyone protests these laws because they are in place to protect the public from a real danger. Since the penalties have been implemented, alcohol related crashes have dropped significantly.

Although not as common, drug impaired driving has also gained attention. In many places, drugged driving laws are being implemented. Although some of these enforce a zero tolerance policy, others are setting legal limits as in the case of alcohol.

Marijuana is by far the most widely used illicit drug around the world. It is also associated with vehicle crashes. According to US data, cannabis users have a 10-fold increase in car crash injury after adjusting for blood alcohol concentration. However, until recently, it was unknown how long cannabis remains in the blood stream or causes impairment – making it difficult to set any kind of reasonable limit in driving laws.

One study examined 30 male chronic daily cannabis smokers over a month of supervised abstinence to determine how long the active chemical from the drug remained in their blood (THC).

Of the 30 participants, 27 were positive when the study began. The chemical decreased gradually over the course of the study – 95 percent and then 85 percent were still positive on days eight and 22 respectively. After 33 days, one person still had detectable THC in his blood.

We know that acutely intoxicated cannabis smokers exhibit significant impairment in cognitive, perceptual and psychomotor tasks including the areas of attention, complex decision-making and reaction time. Some studies have also shown cognitive impairment that can last anywhere from seven to 28 days after use of the drug.

This study was the first to actually quantify the persistence of the chemical in the bloodstream and its findings are consistent with studies on the potential for lasting impairment. It was a relatively small study of chronic users and all participants were male – so more research will likely need to be done to see how the results compare in different populations.

Determining an acceptable blood limit for THC and driving is a more complex task than with alcohol. However, given the strong association between cannabis use and vehicle accidents, it is important to get a clear picture of the course and persistence of impairment so the laws can be set accordingly.

Read more Mental Health articles


About the author...

Paul Latimer has over 25 years experience in clinical practice, research, and administration.

After obtaining his medical degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, he did psychiatric training at Queen's, Oxford and Temple Universities. After his residency he did a doctorate in medical science at McMaster University where he was also a Medical Research Council of Canada Scholar.

Since 1983 he has been practicing psychiatry in Kelowna, BC, where he has held many administrative positions and conducted numerous clinical trials.

He has published many scientific papers and one book on the psychophysiology of the functional bowel disorders.

He is an avid photographer, skier and outdoorsman.

Like us on Facebook:

Follow us on Twitter: @OCT_ca

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet presents its columns "as is" and does not warrant the contents.

Previous Stories

RSS this page.
(Click for RSS instructions.)