‘Good’ Cholesterol May Not Be So Great After All

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Bad news for good cholesterol: A Danish study published in European Heart Journal finds that people with extremely high high-density lipoprotein (HDL, often called “good” cholesterol) levels face a higher, not lower, risk of death.

Cholesterol as a substance is neither good nor bad, but an important part of our body chemistry. Like most things, in moderation, it's fine; the health risks set in once our levels get out of whack. Scientists and doctors have long understood cholesterol as a sort of angel-on-one-shoulder, devil-on-the-other situation, in which low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is harmful and HDL is helpful. HDL mediates LDL's negative effects, which means that having more HDL is good.

Or at least that's what we thought.

Researchers pulled health information on 116,000 people from the Copenhagen City Heart Study and the Copenhagen General Population Study, then cross-checked it against death reports from the Danish Civil Registration System. They followed study subjects for six years, during which more than 10,500 people died. 

What they found surprised them. Extremely high levels of HDL were associated with significantly greater risks of death than normal levels—68 percent higher for women and a staggering 106 percent for men. Men with very high HDL (one step down from "extremely high") were 36 percent more likely to die.

"These results radically change the way we understand 'good' cholesterol. Doctors like myself have been used to congratulating patients who had a very high level of HDL in their blood. But we should no longer do so, as this study shows a dramatically higher mortality rate," co-author Børge Nordestgaard of the University of Copenhagen said in a statement.

Before we get too worried, it's worth noting that these extremely high HDL levels were incredibly rare, affecting only 0.4 percent of male participants and 0.3 percent of women. The researchers say these people were also more likely to share unusual genetic variants. It's possible that these genes and not the cholesterol are responsible for their higher mortality rates.

Some elements of our ideas about cholesterol still held true. People with extremely low HDL levels also faced an increased mortality risk.

The safest levels seemed to be right in the middle, at 1.9 mmol/L for men and 2.4 mmol/L for women. 

More research is needed, as this study focused exclusively on white Danish people and only looked at correlation, not causation. 

Still, Nordestgaard said, "It appears that we need to remove the focus from HDL as an important health indicator in research, at hospitals and at the general practitioner. These are the smallest lipoproteins in the blood, and perhaps we ought to examine some of the larger ones instead."

15 Scientific Ways to Relax for National Relaxation Day

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Today is National Relaxation Day, so you have a great excuse to take it easy. Here’s how science can help you have the most laid-back day of the year.

1. GET A HOUSE OR OFFICE PLANT.

Spending time in nature improves your overall wellbeing, but it turns out even just a little greenery is great for your health. Studies have shown patients in hospital rooms with plants report lower stress. Even just stepping into a lush space can reduce your heart rate. Plus, plants are effective at increasing oxygen and clearing out toxins, which should help you breathe easier—literally.

2. AVOID SCREENS BEFORE BEDTIME.

Artificial light from TV and computer screens affects melatonin production and throws off circadian rhythms, which messes with your sleep. Studies have found that young adults were more likely to suffer from sleep disorders, high stress and even depression if they reported intensive use of cell phones and computers at night.

3. LISTEN TO CLASSICAL MUSIC.

Any music you enjoy is bound to make you feel better, but classical music, in particular, has been shown to slow heart rate, lower blood pressure and even decrease levels of stress hormones.

4. DRINK GREEN TEA SWEETENED WITH HONEY.

Green tea contains L-theanine, which reduces stress, and honey—unlike cane sugar—has been shown to counteract free radicals and reduce inflammation, which is sometimes linked to depression.

5. GIVE YOURSELF A HAND MASSAGE.

Especially if you spend all day typing, hands can get really tense. A quick massage should be doable at your desk and if you incorporate some lavender-scented lotion, you’ll get extra relaxation benefits.

6. LOCK LIPS WITH SOMEONE.

Romance is relaxing! Kissing releases oxytocin, a chemical that is shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

7. CHEW GUM.

No matter what flavor it is, the act of chewing gum has been proven to lower cortisol and improve reported mood.

8. BLOW UP A BALLOON.

Reacting to stress with short, shallow breaths will only exacerbate the problem—your body needs more oxygen, not less, to relax. Blowing up a balloon will help you refocus on your breathing. No balloons around? Just concentrate on taking a few deep breaths.

9. MOW THE LAWN.

Research shows that a chemical released by a mowed lawn—that fresh-cut grass smell—makes people feel happy and relaxed. Plus, knocking it off your to-do list will give you one less thing to stress about.

10. FIND SOMETHING TO MAKE YOU LAUGH.

Watching a funny video online does more than just brighten your afternoon, it physically helps to relax you by increasing the endorphins released by your brain.

11. MUNCH ON CHOCOLATE.

What’s also good at releasing endorphins? Chocolate. Studies show that even just 40 grams of dark chocolate a day can help you de-stress.

12. EAT A BANANA.

Potassium helps your body regulate blood pressure. Keeping that under control should help you bounce back more quickly from what’s got you stressed.

13. MAKE ANOTHER TRIP TO THE FRUIT STAND.

Still hungry after that chocolate and banana? Try citrus. Recent studies show that vitamin C helps to alleviate the physical and psychological effects of stress.

14. FOCUS ON RELAXING ALL OF YOUR MUSCLES.

Take a break from whatever you’re doing and, starting at your toes and working upwards, spend a few moments slowly tensing, and then releasing, the muscles of each part of your body.

15. TAKE A MINI MENTAL VACATION.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, take a moment to close your eyes and picture a particularly relaxing scene. It may sound cheesy, but numerous studies show that just a few minutes of disengaging from your stressors rejuvenates your ability to tackle the work.

After Seven Years, Melbourne Has Been Displaced as the World's Most Liveable City

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We should all move to Vienna. That's what the Economist Intelligence Unit recommends: In a new report, it ranked Austria's capital as the world's most liveable city. With a score of 99.1 out of 100, Vienna beat out Melbourne for the top spot, which the Australian city had held onto for the past seven consecutive years. This is the City of Music's first time being number one.

The survey ranks 140 cities worldwide based on five categories: stability (including crime and terrorism); healthcare; culture and environment (including level of censorship, temperature, and cultural offerings); education; and infrastructure (including public transportation, housing, energy, and water). Overall, there were improvements in safety and stability this year for the countries surveyed.

Vienna scored a perfect 100 in four out of five categories. The only area in which the city could use a tiny bit of improvement is in culture and environment—though its 96.3 score is still pretty impressive.

The cities that scored best on the list tend to be mid-sized with low population densities and located in wealthy countries. The world's biggest urban centers, such as New York, London, and Paris, may be popular places to live for their unbeatable food and culture, but high levels of crime, congestion, and public transportation issues make quality of life less desirable and drag them down in the rankings.

The top 10 most liveable cities are:

1. Vienna, Austria
2. Melbourne, Australia
3. Osaka, Japan
4. Calgary, Canada
5. Sydney, Australia
6. Vancouver, Canada
7. Toronto, Canada
8. Tokyo, Japan
9. Copenhagen, Denmark
10. Adelaide, Australia

And here are the 10 least liveable cities:

131. Dakar, Senegal
132. Algiers, Algeria
133. Douala, Cameroon
134. Tripoli, Libya
135. Harare, Zimbabwe
136. Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
137. Karachi, Pakistan
138. Lagos, Nigeria
139. Dhaka, Bangladesh
140. Damascus, Syria

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