Health experts are talking about…

…how drinking coffee may help us live longer. Coffee lovers, rejoice. In the largest look so far at the effects of drinking coffee, it turns out that those of us who drink about three cups a day may live longer than our non-coffee-drinking counterparts.

A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found higher coffee consumption is linked with a lower rate of death from any cause and was particularly effective for those with circulatory and digestive diseases. This is true across 10 European countries, where both consumption and preparation methods vary widely.

Analyzing data on over a half million people age 35 and older, who were followed for an average of 16.4 years, led to some surprising findings. For instance, people in Denmark drink the most cups of joe, while those in Italy consume the least. Avid coffee drinkers are generally younger, smoke and drink more, eat more meat and consume fewer fruits and vegetables. 

Even after factoring in poor lifestyle habits like smoking, people who drank the most coffee had a lower risk for all causes of death, compared to those who did not drink coffee. More analysis showed that coffee drinkers may also have healthier livers and better insulin resistance than non-coffee drinkers.

In a separate study of 185,000 multiethnic coffee drinkers in the United States, researchers found that coffee-drinking African Americans, Japanese Americans, Latinos and whites were healthier than non-coffee drinkers in these groups. Those who consumed an average of two to four cups daily (caffeinated or decaf) had about an 18 percent lower risk of death. Coffee also helped lower the risk of diabetes, cancer, stroke, heart and respiratory diseases and kidney disease. This finding is important because different ethnicities have disparate lifestyles and disease risks. 

While more research is needed to figure out which specific compounds in coffee are beneficial, drinking coffee appears to not only be safe but may actually help protect your health. But go easy on high-calorie, sweetened, coffee-flavored beverages; it’s best to stick to the brewed version, black, no sugar.

…how pets can help keep us healthy. About two-thirds of Americans are pet owners, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that’s a good thing.

Research is still scarce despite human-pet bonds dating back thousands of years. But experts believe that owning a pet is good for our minds as well as for our physical health.

Among adults who suffered heart attacks, dog owners were much more likely to be alive a year later than those who did not own dogs, regardless of how severe the heart attack was. In another small study of married couples, pet owners had lower heart rates and blood pressure than those without pets. Owners also respond better to stress when with their pets than with a spouse or friend. Interacting with a pet increases a person’s level of oxytocin, a brain hormone with calming, anti-anxiety effects.

Pets boost our activity levels. In particular, dog owners may get more exercise than the rest of us and so are less likely to be obese and to walk faster and longer than people who don’t walk as regularly. And dog owners move around more inside the home, says the NIH.

Pets (again, especially dogs) help us stay socially connected—and studies clearly show that people who have more social relationships live longer and are less likely to show mental and physical declines as they age.

While dogs may prompt us to get outside more often, cats, birds and even fish create opportunities for social bonding, motivate us to take better care of ourselves and help us stick to our medical regimens. This helps reduce depression and improves everything from our eating patterns to our abilities to carry out daily activities, lowers demand for health services and reduces the need for nursing home care.

…why volunteering is good for your health. People 55 and older who consistently volunteer can improve both their mental and physical well-being. Senior Corps, the government’s national service program for older adults, recently released early results of a multiyear study that found a strong connection between volunteering and reaping health benefits after even just one year.

Half of the active volunteers in Senior Corps programs rated their own health better than they did a year ago; 60 percent said they felt less lonely and 70 percent of those who reported signs of depression when they began volunteering said there was significant improvement in their condition. Volunteers also said they felt less anxious and socially isolated, saw improvements in physical health and had greater life satisfaction at the one-year mark than when they began participating.

And not only the volunteers benefited: the health of family caregivers who interacted with the volunteers who visited their loved ones also improved. Caregivers said the volunteers helped them “a lot” with both personal time and household management by providing respite care and opportunities for non-caregiving activities. It allowed them to become more involved in their own social activities and to enjoy time with friends and family. Caregivers who said their own health was poor or fair a year ago now reported their health as good. 

Senior Corps is under the umbrella of the Corporation for National and Community Service Programs, the federal agency for service volunteering and civic engagement. It runs the Foster Grandparents and Companion Care programs, providing 245,000 volunteers across the United States to mentor and tutor children and to help older adults remain in their communities through respite and independent-living services.

…why laughter may actually be good medicine. Laughter really is good for our health. It exercises facial muscles, increases antibodies (which help our immune systems) and is a great stress buster. Laughter shuts down stress hormones by producing more of the “good” brain chemicals that make us calmer and less anxious.

Humor may help older people cope with debilitating chronic conditions like arthritis, chronic pain, memory loss and depression. Several studies have found a link between humor and better management of chronic health issues.

Researchers are currently looking into the benefits of laughter-based exercise programs for older adults. These programs combine moderate physical activity with simulated laughter techniques. A study from Georgia State University found that a six-week, laughter-based program made exercise more fun and kept participants coming back. It also boosted mental health, improved aerobic function (a measure of how well our circulatory system moves oxygen through our bodies) and even increased participants’ self-confidence.

Laughter also helps memory. According to researchers from Loma Linda University in California, people who watched a funny video for 20 minutes did better on short-term-recall tests than those who just sat quietly for the same amount of time. Scientists think humor may act on the brain in a similar way to meditation, decreasing the stress hormone cortisol and boosting certain brain waves that improve focus and let us think more clearly.

Now there’s another reason to watch those cute cat videos.

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