‘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."

6 Dreaded Tasks That Are Actually Great For Managing Stress

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iStock.com/gilaxia

High levels of the stress hormone cortisol can wreak havoc on your body. (According to a recent study on middle-aged adults, stress not only impairs memory but may even cause the brain to shrink!) Thankfully, some commonly dreaded activities can help reduce your frazzled state.

1. Washing the Dishes

According to a 2014 study published in the journal Mindfulness, a “mindful” approach to dishwashing could reduce stress. “A sample of 51 college students engaged in either a mindful or control dishwashing practice before completing measures of mindfulness, affect, and experience recall,” the study states. “Mindful dishwashers evidenced … increases in elements of positive affect (i.e., inspiration) [and] decreases in elements of negative affect (i.e., nervousness)." In other words, with the right mindset, zoning out in front of a sudsy sink is basically Nirvana.

2. Decluttering Your Home

Research suggests that clutter is more likely to stress out women. In 2010, a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked to see how married couples dealt with (and felt about) messy homes [PDF]. “The wives in the study who perceived themselves as having a cluttered home or a home that needed work tended to have increased levels of cortisol throughout the day,” Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi wrote in The New York Times. "Those who weren’t feeling cluttered, which included most of the men in the study, had cortisol levels that tended to drop during the days.” So tidy up!

3. Exercising In A Group

Working out can feel like a chore, and exercising with a group can be a tad embarrassing—especially if you’re not on the same fitness level as everybody else. But according to research in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, exercising with a group is more beneficial at reducing stress than working out alone. “Researchers found that working out in a group lowers stress by 26 percent,” according to the press release. Go ahead and book that spin class!

4. Sniffing Your Partner’s Laundry

No sane person puts “sniff your significant other's dirty socks” on their to-do list, but perhaps they should. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows that sniffing a loved one’s clothes can reduce stress. In the study, 96 women sniffed one of three scents—a neutral smell, their romantic partner’s scent, or the scent of a stranger. The stranger’s smell caused cortisol to spike. But their partner’s smell? It reduced stress.

5. Dwelling On Your Failures

The title of this study, which appeared in the journal Frontiers in 2018, says it all: “Writing About Past Failures Attenuates Cortisol Responses and Sustained Attention Deficits Following Psychosocial Stress.” According to the study, “[W]riting about a previous failure may allow an individual to experience a new stressor as less stressful, reducing its physiological and behavioral effects.” It sounds paradoxical, but the next time you're facing a crazy situation, just reflect on a time when it all went wrong—and things might not feel so bad.

6. Singing For All to Hear

For the shy and tone-deaf, singing in a group might be a anxiety-fueled nightmare—but they should try it anyway. A pilot study presented at the Society for Neuroscience conference last year showed that, in people with Parkinson's disease, singing in a group can reduce heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. (Researchers cautioned that this is preliminary data.) The findings jibe with a 2016 study from Drexel University that found, no matter your skill level, making art usually reduces cortisol levels [PDF].

Nearly Half of American Adults Don't Know Their Own Blood Type

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iStock.com/nzphotonz

If you know your blood type, you’re better off than nearly half of Americans. Of the 1004 adults in the U.S. who answered a recent Quest Diagnostics survey, only 57 percent said they knew whether they have type A, B, AB, or O blood.

This is roughly the same number of people who could recall their childhood phone number (55 percent), the survey revealed. By comparison, 74 percent of respondents remembered their lengthy Wi-Fi password, and 75 percent knew how much money was in their bank account.

For many, other personal health information was even murkier. Fewer than two in five people knew their cholesterol or blood sugar levels. Considering that these details provide important insights into one’s risk for certain diseases, survey administrators said this is a cause for concern.

“With consumers increasingly engaged in their own and their loved ones’ health care, it’s critical that they ‘know their numbers’—and have those numbers readily accessible—to ensure productive communication with their healthcare provider for both routine and critical care,” Cathy Doherty of Quest Diagnostics said in a press release.

With the exception of emergencies, at which time you may receive a universal donor's O-negative blood, doctors will almost always conduct blood typing and cross-matching tests to determine your blood type and identify minor antigens in your blood before conducting a transfusion or surgery.

It’s still important to know your blood type for other reasons. Newborn babies, for example, can develop hemolytic disease if their Rh blood type (meaning whether it's positive or negative) doesn’t match their mother's. And depending on your blood type, you may also have an increased risk for blood clots, heart disease, certain types of cancer, and even severe diarrhea and mosquito bites.

If you know your blood type, you’re also in a better position to donate blood and help people in need if there’s a natural disease or emergency, or if blood banks simply have a low supply. O blood tends to be the highest in demand (and O-positive is the most common blood type), but blood banks may issue public notices from time to time if they need a particular type.

If you’re unsure of your blood type, clinical labs like Quest Diagnostics offer blood type tests. You can also order test kits online from Amazon.

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