Friday, March 16, 2007
Binge drinking derails Denise... and others
One of my favorite movies is "Animal House." I've probably seen it a hundred times, but I can still waste a Saturday afternoon laughing at Bluto, Otter and the other brothers of Delta House. Looking back, the drunken escapades in that film seem so tame, almost innocent - especially in these days of "Girls Gone Wild" and the frat boy scene in "Borat."

I've been thinking about college culture since reading a new report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. The study focused on binge drinking and drug use. The results are fascinating: Nearly half of all students binge drink or abuse drugs, and nearly one in four college students meet the medical criteria for substance abuse and dependence. Now to put that in perspective, that's two and a half times the rate in the general population who meet the same criteria.

Over the past few days, I've been talking about the study with people I know and most of them are not surprised by the findings. In fact, some of them spoke fondly about their own exploits. As one friend said, "Isn't college where you should make mistakes?" He has a point, but as I read the study and talked to experts, it seems these days many students are taking it to extremes. Saturday night bar crawls have become all-week booze fests (with a class here or there). And the drinks are cheap and plentiful - penny beer has almost become a college institution. But along with the partying come the problems. Reported sexual assaults and alcohol related deaths are on the rise. Talk about a buzz kill.

Yesterday, I spoke with Denise, a young woman who took full advantage of the college party scene. (Watch Video)

She ended up quitting school and getting canned from her job because of her drinking. She's been sober now for almost four years and credits a 12-step program for getting her life back together. Denise is back in school and will graduate in May with honors. We asked her what she thinks it would take to curb this dangerous trend of binge drinking and drug abuse. She says there have to be consequences. That's what the CASA report also suggests. (See Study)

I want to know what you think. Do students drink more than they did when you were in school or do you think this report blows it out of proportion? Also, do you think schools should do more to crack down?
Thursday, March 15, 2007
Running down memory lane
Last weekend, I did a very odd thing. I got in my car, left my family at home and drove to the first TV station where I ever worked. That may not sound so adventurous, but I live outside Washington, D.C., and my first job in broadcasting was in Clarksburg, West Virginia. Don't reach for a map - I can save you the trouble. It's about 200 miles away, a three-hour drive, without stops. Why would I take a glorious afternoon to drive to a place I haven't been in 30 years? Can't tell you. I just had a strong urge to see the place again. Maybe I was being melancholy, but the images of the town had become so vivid in my head, I just had to hit the road. So I took off, with the Four Tops blasting on my stereo. No Gwen Stefani for me, thank you. I was coasting down memory lane.

Once there, I drove by the station, my old apartment, the places I hung out with friends. The town has changed a lot, but the old church, the bank, the city pool, the railroad tracks I crossed to get home, were still there. The visit was like comfort food for my brain. It felt good to see my old haunts. To finish up the day, I stopped at a gas station, picked up a pepperoni roll and sped on home. My memory mission was complete.

So, was this just an episode in my mid-life crisis or something more? Could be both, but scientists believe it might be due to the exercise I've incorporated into my life recently. Since November, I've been hitting the gym more often. I feel better, both physically and mentally. Now researchers believe that exercise can actually boost brain power in such a way, it can build new cells in a region of the brain linked with memory and memory loss.

The study was actually twofold. While looking at the effects of exercise on the brains of mice, scientists noted that the more the animals exercised, the more brain cells they regenerated, especially in the region called the dentate gyrus, which involves memory. After using high-tech imaging to document the changes in the brains of the mice, researchers used the same MRI process to look at the brains of people before and after exercise. They found the same blood-flow patterns, which suggest that people can also grow new brain cells when they exercise. Although the study, which was headed by doctors at Columbia University Medical Center, was small, they think it's another bit of proof that exercise is good for your brain.

In all truthfulness, I have no idea whether my new gym routine sparked my memory of the hills of West Virginia. I hadn't thought about the place in a long, long time. But since I began my spinning class and working out more often, those "Almost Heaven" moments had become so real to me, I had to touch them again. Let's hope it continues, because the second TV station I worked for was in Miami.

What has exercise done for your brain? I'd like to hear about it.
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
My very adult addiction
When my husband first told me he was going to buy a Wii video game console, I humored him, but I couldn't help thinking I was indulging his juvenile inclinations. I had stopped playing video games when my Atari console went obsolete in middle school. But early one icy morning last month, he waited in line for four hours in front of the Nintendo store in hopes of snagging one of the hard-to-find sets, and came home triumphant, his arms wrapped around his fancy new Wii.

Good for you, I said.

Fast forward to two Saturdays later, when I woke up with a sore arm. The night before had been a Wii marathon. Friends had come over to play, and the living room heated up as we duked it out in boxing matches and bowling rounds. After they left, I continued to practice the tennis game against the computer, serving and backhanding, until I had reached "pro" status. I paid the price all that Saturday, barely able to move my arm, but satisfied at my performance. I was addicted.

That's why I wasn't surprised to learn that some people have started to use the Wii as a weight-loss tool. A Los Angeles Times article cites one man whose only exercise was to play his Wii for 30 minutes a day, and he lost nine pounds over six weeks. Online Wii fitness communities have started to sprout up too. Another article talks about the potential benefit for physically challenged or elderly people to have some physical activity while in the comfort of their living rooms.

It's not the first video game that's been hailed for its fitness benefits. We did a story a while back about John Polchowski, a teenager who played Dance Dance Revolution every day for one or two hours and shed 70 pounds in a year. A Mayo Clinic researcher did a study showing kids who play active video games such as DDR and the Sony EyeToy expend roughly double the energy of kids playing sedentary video games.

And then there are the brain fitness games, like the Nintendo Brain Age, which is supposed to challenge your mind with various activities including quick math calculations. Your score reflects how "old" your brain is. Proponents have touted its ability to keep minds sharp and even to potentially stave off Alzheimer's disease.

Video games have clearly evolved. So should we accept that they are a part of our lives and can even be good for our kids, or should we always push children away from the TV set and make them do other stuff? Is there a reasonable compromise?
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
Mental wounds of war
Sometimes the most serious wounds of war are the ones that can't be seen, only felt. My father served three Army combat tours in Vietnam. My brother, a Marine, has served in Iraq two times. I am acutely aware of how war can change a person. Those changes are happening right now.

Researchers at the San Francisco Veteran's Administration Hospital have found that 25 percent of America's Veterans coming home from war in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from some kind of mental health disorder. (Watch CNN's Jamie McIntyre's story) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is the most widespread problem, diagnosed in 13 percent of returning veterans, followed by anxiety, depression and substance abuse. PTSD can be extremely debilitating and may not surface until months or years after a war zone tour ends.

The average age of soldiers in Vietnam was 19 years old. The conflict in Iraq is also a war for the young, and according to the study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, veterans between 18 and 24 years old are at greatest risk for mental health disorders. Younger, lower-ranked service members are more likely to be on the frontlines and receive more combat exposure than their older counterparts.

Researchers say their findings signal a need for improvements in the prevention of military service-related mental health disorders. The Veterans Administration has come a long way in treating the mental wounds of war since the Vietnam era. My father received no help with mental issues after Vietnam, and he carried his war experience with him to his grave.

If you are a veteran and have questions about getting benefits for mental health issues, check out the Federal Benefits for Veterans and Dependents booklet at http://www1.va.gov/opa/feature/.
Monday, March 12, 2007
Spring forward, falling back: Bad for your health?
When I was a kid, daylight-saving time was a glorious time of the year. It meant two things: warmer weather and more hours of schoolyard antics for me and my ball-playing buddies. I used to look forward to it. It used to make me as happy as a vacation day from school.

Now as an adult, daylight-saving time means one thing: one less hour of precious sleep. As I groggily dragged myself out of bed, I just had to wonder: Can one less hour in bed affect my health?

First, I had to find out a bit more about daylight-saving time itself. After all, it seems like a misnomer. You can't really save daylight. We can change, wind or even break the clocks as much as we want, but I'll still get about 12 hours of sunlight in New York today. One of the main purposes for DST is energy conservation. The idea is that daylight should coincide with peak activity times. So, we spring forward so that we don't sleep through that early morning daylight. Also, it gives us more natural light in the evenings. With the clocks moving forward, we use less energy, through acts such as lighting our houses later at night.

How and when did DST all begin? Well, with politicians, of course. Germany was the first nation to enact it in 1915. These days approximately 70 countries worldwide observe DST. Almost all of the United States practices DST except for parts of Arizona and Indiana. In 1918, the U.S. Congress passed the first DST law, but repealed it a year later. In 1966, the Congress enacted the Uniform Time Act which established a uniform DST throughout most of the country. This year, with the Energy Policy Act of 2005 going into effect, DST started three weeks early.

Does all this temporal law-making affect our health? The answer is a definitive maybe. On the bright side, it could mean good news for your oral health. The additional amount of daylight could stimulate your body’s vitamin D production and strengthen your teeth and bones according a study in the Journal of Periodontology. A small 2006 Finnish study found that people who regularly sleep less than eight hours or who are more active at night have a much harder time adjusting to the DST change.

There has also been a good deal of research looking into DST and traffic accidents. The reviews are mixed. In the long-term, DST has been shown to save lives through reduced automobile crashes. The researchers say accidents decrease because more people are traveling during daylight hours and fewer are driving during the accident-prone nighttime. But in the short-term, a Canadian researcher found that springing forward is associated with a slight increase in the number of accidental car deaths. Stanley Coren of the University of British Columbia found a 6.5 percent to 8 percent rise on the Monday immediately following the time change. That's compared with no increases associated with the falling backward shift.

What do you think about daylight-saving time? Do you think it has any impact on our health? Is the practice useful to you? Do you think energy conservation is a direct result? Are there any harmful effects?
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