Many of us have now assumed certain grandparenting duties with joy and pleasure, especially if we do can them without the duress of becoming the primary care giver … Apparently there have been very few studies on what this role does to our cognitive health. So I read with great interest the article that appeared in this month’s journal of the North American Menopause Society (aptly named Menopause).

The title of the article is “Role of grandparenting in postmenopausal women’s cognitive health: results from the Women’s Healthy Aging Project”. The participants included 186 Australian women from a larger prospective aging study. This portion of the study was meant to examine the disuse hypothesis, also known as ” the use it or lose it” hypothesis that proposes that decreases in activity with age results in the disuse of cognitive mechanisms, which then cause a decline in cognitive abilities. We know that as we get older, large social networks or high levels of social activities can improve cognitive function, help diminish cognitive decline and even lower the risk of developing dementia. So does grandparenting fulfill this function?

A questionnaire was administered to the participants in 2004. They were asked whether they had grandchildren, if they were currently minding their grandchildren, and, if so, how much time they spent minding their grandchildren. Participants were also asked if they felt that their children have been particularly demanding of them in the past 12 month. Cognitive tests were later administered (I won’t bore you with the types and the questions) and their verbal memory and executive function were assessed. There were 131 grandmothers in the sample and those who spent time minding grandchildren (111) were more likely to be employed than those who did not. There was no significant difference in age, number of grandchildren or education between the participants. No significant differences in performance in any of the tests were observed between grandmothers and non-grandmothers; there were also no significant differences between participants who were minding grandchildren and those who were not. The only differences that were found were that participants who spent one day a week minding their grandchildren had the highest cognitive performance in all the tests and those who did so for five days or more per week had the lowest test scores. Frequent grandparenting apparently predicted lower processing speed and working memory performance. Moreover, those who had to perform this “task” almost daily reported more feelings of resentment.

Does this mean that too much of a grandparenting role may not be good for our cognitive health? Although this article was published in a peer reviewed journal, I feel the study is too small to make that assumption. There’s no question that if one has to take care for grandchildren without a respite it can be tiring both physically and mentally. Those in the study who “minded” their grandchildren five days a week or more may have had no choice and indeed minded. Their mood and perhaps fatigue may have adversely impacted their cognitive test results.

I have to stop now and take my granddaughter to her dance class. The drive might be mind numbing but watching her perform is not. This is not a daily “task”, so I assume my cognitive abilities will remain intact.

As I try to fight a serious case of jet lag while in Tel Aviv visiting my family for Thanksgiving and Hanukkah (I have been told that the holidays have not coincided for thousands of years…but wait, Thanksgiving is not that old …whatever), I checked out JAMA online. And there was an article titled “Sleep May Help Remove Harmful Molecules From the Brain”.The author basically contends that sleep may help restore brain function by enabling the brain to remove certain harmful molecules linked with brain damage (in medical term neurodegeneration).

It’s known that sleep deprivation inhibits learning, slows reaction time and may even trigger seizures. But the how and why is not clear. A study published in Science online this October suggests that removal of some harmful molecules from the brain maybe one of the ways sleep gives us “brain protection”. The researchers found that in mice, sleep caused a 60% increase in certain spaces between the cells in their brain which then allowed a better exchange of the fluid that baths these cells. They also found that during sleep the mice appeared to have enhanced clearance of beta amyloid a protein which has potential toxic effects on the brain. They did not mention wheather the mice who got enough sleep became smarter (or less dumb).

The fact that sleep is a consistent behavior across all species does suggest that it is an important function that has been preserved throughout evolution. I know that all of us feel better after a good night sleep but did we think that it was clearing destructive molecules from our brain? Now if we could just figure out how to get the right molecules into our brains and the wrong ones out, especially when we’re traveling across multiple time zones!

That’s all my brain can handle right now. In LA time it’s 3 AM. Happy Thanksgiving! I’ll be back next week….

We all know that Bacchus was a man. Based on gender stereotypes, most of us assume that women are less likely to excessively imbibe alcohol then men. (For the sake of transparency, the Superbowl was playing while I wrote this and all that celebrated testosterone caused me to make that last statement). But not necessarily so… According to a recent CDC report in “Vital Signs,” more than 14 million US women binge drink about three times a month and consume an average of six drinks per binge. This number includes one in eight women and one in five high school girls! The report states that binge drinking is most common in young women, women who are white or Hispanic, and among women with household incomes of $75,000 or more. Oh…and half of all high school girls who drink alcohol report binge drinking.

A woman’s ability to metabolize alcohol differs significantly from that of a man. When we drink alcohol it is absorbed more quickly, deactivated by enzymes less efficiently, and gets to the brain faster. (Well, we always knew that our brains have rapid and superior circulation. ) We generally weigh less than men so we are also less likely to dilute the stuff. As a result, one drink for a women has the impact of two for a man.

The definition of binge drinking for a woman is consumption of four or more alcohol drinks on an occasion. And an occasion is considered to be 2 to 3 hours. Although binge drinking in high school or college can lead to a higher incidence of alcoholism in later life, most binge drinkers are non-alcoholics and not alcohol dependent. The CDC reports that drinking too much (which of course includes binge drinking) results in about 23,000 deaths in women and girls each year and increases the chances of breast cancer, heart disease, sexually-transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancy as well as other health problems. If a woman binge drinks while pregnant, she risks exposing her baby to high levels of alcohol during its development which can lead to miscarriage, low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and fetal alcohol syndrome (facial disfigurement and mental deficiencies). This is where I’m supposed to say it’s not safe to drink alcohol any time during pregnancy.

Aside from giving warnings, the CDC and its Guide to Community Preventive Services recommend certain strategies for preventing excessive alcohol consumption.. These include:  

*Increasing alcohol taxes.

*Reducing the number and concentration of stores that sell alcohol in a given area.

*Continuing government controls over alcohol sales.

*Maintaining or reducing the days and hours of alcohol sales.

*Enhanced enforcement of laws prohibiting sales to minors.

*Electronic screening and counseling for excessive alcohol use.

I know some of this sounds excessive and may go against our sense of what the government should and should not do. (There are no blue laws in California, and according to that wonderful series Boardwalk Empire, prohibition doesn’t work!) To help avoid teenage binging, the best plan might be to make sure that our teens can’t get into our liquor closet and of course, maintain zero tolerance for alcohol use before, during and after school parties. And then we should listen to the anti-binge advice ourselves. Remember abstaining from that second and certainly the third drink may lessen our risk for breast cancer, heart disease, stupid behavior, and worse yet, the wrong sexual and reproductive decisions. We just don’t need that extra glass of wine, cocktail or beer to enjoy the game, the dinner or the party. The salute ” Le Chaim” (translated, for those of you who need it) to “To Life” need not be accompanied by 4 drinks…one is healthier and should suffice.

A quick personal note: I am traveling to Mozambique next week with several women to see the school we built through the LA Associates of Save the Children. I will be happy to share pictures and stories upon my return.


I no longer have to take exams (except for recent on-line traffic school), nor do most of my contemporaries. But we all have to maintain our learning and memory skills in order to live our daily lives and to perform adequately or hopefully, better than adequately, in our professions. Even if we don’t have to take academic tests, our children and grandchildren do. And we all stay up for hours in front of our computers, iPads and tablets trying to get our work done, making sure we have not forgotten something or are not behind in our virtual lives. It seems that everyone crams, often at the expense of sleep. Well, it turns out that the best way to study for an exam, prepare for that next day’s task or keep the necessary data going in our brain’s memory is to get a good night’s sleep. Studies have shown that even a little sleep loss may impair our memory and learning skills.

This was the conclusion of research presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in New Orleans this past week, reported in JAMA. A team of researchers from Pennsylvania studied the effects of a single night of lost sleep on 22 healthy adults who agreed to stay in the lab for five days and undergo brain imaging and memory testing. (I’m not sure how anyone could sleep in a lab but hey, research of this nature requires consenting adults who agree to have sleep-overs in strange places.) The participants  were tested after a normal night of sleep and then after a night of sleep deprivation and then once more after two nights of “recovery sleep”. Lo and behold, the participants didn’t perform well on memory tasks after a sleepless night. And when imaging tests were done, their sleep deprived brains had decreased connectivity between the hippocampus (where memory is stored) and other areas of the brain necessary for performance of memory tests and tasks. It was as though parts of their brains had gone to sleep (or strike), in protest of the forced state of sleep deprivation.

The good news is that needed memory connectivity was not lost for long after a night of lost sleep. In the study, the brain connections and the participants’ performance on memory tasks were back to normal after a couple of nights of recovery sleep.

Bottom line: If you get a good night’s sleep you’ll be more likely to remember what you just read and what you should do with the information the next day…I usually write articles telling you to eat right, exercise, maintain a healthy weight, get the appropriate diagnostic tests, therapies, medications and immunizations. This time my advice should be somewhat more relaxing… sleep well.

As many of you know I travel abroad 3 or 4 times a year, mostly to visit family or go to conferences.  So many of us have gone global… there are 30 million travelers who fly from the US for destinations that are at least 5 or more time zones away from their home. Most suffer from jet lag upon arrival at their destination and then, alas, upon return. A recent review of jet lag appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine. I thought it appropriate (as I prepare to fly 7,000 miles in early April,) to share this pertinent information with you.

Jet lag is due to a temporary misalignment between your internal clock (termed the circadian clock) and local time. Your brain’s time and function follows a light-dark cycle set by the sun. And this internal clock does not readjust at the speed of jet travel. As a result, many travelers experience insomnia, daytime sleepiness, mood changes (I get grumpy) and fatigue. Fatigue may also be due to the fact that you are immobile, don’t eat right, become dehydrated and stressed with log-distant air travel. (And I am not even considering the stress that must have accompanied that recent “delayed flight” on Virgin Atlantic lasting 17 hours from LAX to JFK!)

There are a number of factors that contribute to jet lag:

  • The number of time zones crossed: Obviously, the more the worse it gets, and if the trip is long, even if the number of crossed time zones are not great (i.e. the same latitude), travel fatigue can cause symptoms.
  • Direction of travel: It is usually more difficult traveling east then west .Most people find it is easier to lengthen the day than to shorten it. (Unless like me you are a “morning type”, in which case the reverse can happen.) It’s estimated that the circadian clock resets an average of 92 minutes each day on a westward flight and 57 minutes earlier each day after an eastward flight.
  • Sleep loss during travel: Chances are if you are in coach you will not be able to stretch out and go to sleep.
  • Loss of light cues (exposure to natural light at your destination): If it’s the “wrong” time or if you arrive in non sunny weather, you don’t get the sun light that helps your brain adjust.
  • Ability to tolerate circadian misalignment: Some people just can….hope it’s our politicians! Tolerance seems to decrease with age. Oi!

There are a few strategies that seem to somewhat mitigate jet lag:

  • Optimize light exposure: Try to get  bright sun light in the evening if traveling Westward, not the early morning  and seek exposure to bright light in the morning if traveling Eastward (you get up much earlier so try to take a morning walk.)
  • Take melatonin: Melatonin is the hormone that is secreted for about 10 to 12 hours at night and is a darkness signal. You can purchase melatonin without prescription. To promote shifting of the body clock to a later time when you travel westward take 0.5 mg during the second half of the night until you become adapted to local time. If you are traveling eastward take 0.5 to 3mgs at local bedtime nightly until becoming adapted.
  • Schedule sleep changes ahead of time: Try to go to sleep 1-2 hours later than usual for a few days before your westbound trip and go to sleep 1-2 hours earlier for a few days before your trip east.
  • Sleep medications. They help; you might try taking medications such as Ambien or Lunesta at bedtime for a few nights until you have adjusted to local time.
  • Agents that promote alertness: Caffeine works, but avoid it after midday so it won’t adversely affect your sleep. Armodafi (Nuvigil)l and Modafinil (Provigil) which are drugs approved for narcolepsy and for shift workers (to improve alertness) have been show to reduce symptoms of jet lag if taken in the morning. They are not yet FDA approved for jet lag. Side effects include headache and nausea.
  • On the plane: If possibly fly after you have had a good night’s sleep. Travel in business or first class (but know your health insurance won’t pay for this, even if your doctor recommends it). Drink lots of water, don’t consume caffeine if you expect to sleep on the flight, and don’t imbibe alcohol if you take a sleeping pill. You can try taking a short acting sleep medication such as Sonata. If the flight is more than 10 hours you can consider taking a longer acting sleeping pill such as Ambien or Lunesta.  (Make sure the flight takes off and is OK before taking any of these.)
  • Exercise when you are at your destination…it can have an impact on your circadian rhythms.

So here’s hoping you have a safe and uneventful trip and that a few of these tips will help you enjoy the first few days of your arrival and return. I will be off trying all these jet lag preventions during the first 2 weeks of April. I’ll be back in the office and seeing patients after the 15th. I intend to be alert!

Most of us can point to depressing episodes in our lives….woes befall all of us: the economy, personal loss, worries about errant spouses, children (remember, we are only as happy as our most unhappy child) and aging parents. And I haven’t even begun to list the enormity of the global energy problems, international conflicts and consequences of disease. (If I keep going, I’m bound to find something that depresses you!) There is, of course, a difference between having to deal with either personal or large scale social issues that lead to sadness and worry and the occurrence of true clinical depression. The best way to define the latter, without going into treatises put out by the American Psychiatric Association, is that nothing gives you pleasure; nor can you function in your everyday mode of life. If you feel that you are in a dark tunnel with no light at the other end, day after day; you are clinically depressed. And a huge number of us are… up to 25% of women develop clinical depression at some point in their lives (more then twice the prevalence of clinical depression in men, which may be a reflection of our genetic capacity for concern and sensitivity).

Clinical depression peaks in our reproductive years. Nine percent of women will have an episode during or within 3 months of pregnancy. The consequences can be harmful to both mother and child. There are entire medical journals dealing with “the safest way” to deliver a baby, the pros and cons of Cesarean vs. natural delivery, the concerns about vacuums, forceps, routine episiotomy, not to mention tables to ascertain desired weight gain, concerns about preterm deliveries and of course tests to ensure the genetic integrity of our offspring. But few Ob Gyns are trained to either recognize or treat clinical depression in pregnancy. When asked by a patient whether it is safe to start or continue antidepressant medication during pregnancy….we hem and haw. Here is what I now tell my patients:

Women are more apt to develop depression during pregnancy if they:

  • Have a history of depression at any time including a previous pregnancy or postpartum.
  • Have been diagnosed with clinical depression in the past.
  • Have a family history of depression, especially during pregnancy or postpartum.
  • Have other psychiatric illnesses (panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, substance abuse).
  • Marital instability…this cover a lot of issues, I translate it as a non supportive, or worse yet, abusive spouse.
  • Unplanned pregnancies …unfortunately as many as 50% of pregnancies are not planned).

Depression can harm a pregnancy:

Studies have shown that women who are depressed during pregnancy have twice the risk of cesarean section, premature delivery and neonatal intensive care admissions of the newborn as well as four times the risk of delivering a low birth weight infant when compared to women who were not depressed. Depression and severe stress can cause changes in the hormonal environment in which the fetus is developing (This includes steroids such as cortisol, maternal brain hormones, estrogen, progesterone, insulin and growth hormones to name a few). The theory is that this “upset” hormonal milieu can impact fetal growth and fetal programming so that the infants, especially those born at lower than expected birth weights to women who were significantly depressed or stressed during their pregnancy are at future increased risk for schizophrenia, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes osteoporosis and depression.

Treatment: Is it Safe in Pregnancy?

All psychiatric medications cross the placenta. If a pregnant woman is mildly or even moderately depressed (a brief definition: she has no thoughts of suicide, has not needed medication for depression in the past and is able to continue her usual functions) then traditional psychotherapy may be all she needs to successfully deal with her depression. (And we have all become more familiar with therapy sessions after watching Gabriel Byrne). But if her depression is moderate to severe and medication has helped in the past, her best option would be pharmacologic….i.e. antidepressant medication. And the current recommendation is to use the drug that previously worked. Clinical depression is a medical disorder that, like diabetes or hypertension can adversely affect the outcome of pregnancy…not treating it will create a greater risk for a woman and her unborn child than treating it. There has been a reluctance to include pregnant women in many pharmaceutical studies conducted in the past, but as the need to address depression in all women becomes apparent, antidepressants are now being investigated for use during pregnancy.

SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors)
There are many….each with a slight change in chemistry, indication and side effects. Medications in this category include Zoloft, Paxil, Celexa, Lexapro, Effexor, Cymbalta, Wellbutrin, and Serazone. As I write this, more are being introduced. Multiple studies have shown there is a very low absolute risk of congenital anomalies when these medications are used during pregnancy. But the pharmaceutical companies and prescribing physicians must include appropriate reports of adverse effects….sort of like the list of everything that can go wrong at the end of those direct-to- consumer ads you see on television (usually stated in a hurried, breathless manner by a male voice) or read in the patient information provided with the prescriptions.

So here are some: There have been studies that describe an increased risk of abdominal and skull defects with first trimester use of SSRI’s and a rare cardiac defect with Paxil. (Although a Canadian study contradicted the latter.) There has been no evidence of fetal malformations due to use of Prozac in pregnancy…this is indeed the most studied (and oldest) SSRI.

There maybe a sight increase in miscarriage rates among women who take antidepressants compared to nondepressed women: 12.5% v. 8.7%. (It’s difficult to establish if this is due to the meds or their underlying depression). There are also reports that third trimester exposure to SSRI’s can cause tremor, breathing, sleeping and feeding problems in newborns, but this is usually mild and disappears after 2 weeks. The long term good news is that these medications appear to have no effect on exposed children’s IQ, language development or temperament.

Benzodiazepines (such as Valium, Xanex, Dalmane, Ativan, Klonipen. Restoril)
There have been studies that may have shown an increase in cleft palate in infants exposed to benzodiazepines but other studies have not… quite frankly the literature is not definitive.

This is considered relatively safe during pregnancy: but it may increase an exposed infant’s risk of a rare cardiac valve problem. The recommendation is to stop lithium 24 hours before delivery.

To Summarize: If you are on a medication for depression that works, especially an SSRI and you conceive….keep taking it. If you stop, chances are you will have a relapse and this can harm you and your pregnancy. Know that you may need higher doses as the pregnancy develops. (There are a lot of changes in the metabolism and dilution of any medication as you and your pregnancy grow.) After 4 to 6 weeks you and your doctor may decide you need to increase the dose every 2 to 3 weeks until your symptoms are in remission.

Every time the media reports on a new adverse effect from an antidepressant….remember that bad news makes news. If you suffer from clinical depression before or during pregnancy, treatment can make a very positive difference in your pregnancy outcome and the future health of your child.