Brain activity – the missing link between stress and development of cardiovascular disease?

Linda ErnstsenOver the past 30 years, a large and varied body of research has examined the role of chronic psychosocial stress in the development of cardiovascular disease (CVD). The mechanisms behind this association are not fully understood, but several studies support the link between increased stress levels and inflammation. Further, that inflammation is directly involved in the atherosclerotic process in the arteries. Many of the brain areas involved in emotions are also involved in sensing and regulating levels of inflammation in the body. In 2014 a group of researchers at the University in Pittsburg studied 157 healthy adult volunteers who were asked to regulate their emotional reactions to unpleasant pictures while their brain activity was measured with functional imaging. They found that individuals who showed greater brain activation when regulating their negative emotions also exhibited elevated blood levels of interleukin-6, one of the body’s pro-inflammatory cytokines that regulates the immune system and plays a role in cognitive function. Further they observed an increased thickness of the carotid artery wall, a marker of atherosclerosis. The results were independent of age, sex, race, smoking status, and other known CVD risk factors.

Last week Lancet published results from an American study of 293 mentally healthy participants without cardiovascular disease who underwent clinical measurements and scan of the brain. The participants where then followed for four years. The researchers from Harvard Medical School wanted to assess if activity in amygdala, a part of the brain that is involved in emotional processing, could predict cardiovascular events. And they did. The results showed that high activity in amygdala was independently associated with cardiovascular events, and that 39% of this association was explained by arterial inflammation. They also found that most of the association between perceived stress (measured by questionnaires) and arterial inflammation was explained by amygdala activity. Another interesting finding was that bone marrow activity explained 46% of the association between amygdala activity and arterial inflammation. Activation of the bone marrow leads to release of inflammatory cells taking part in in the atherosclerotic process.


In turn, the results from this study reveals an important piece of the puzzle on how psychosocial stress gets under the skin. It also reminds us of the importance of coping with stress in our daily life. Some important behaviors that help our bodies to keep up this balance are regular exercise, getting enough sleep and eating healthy foods.  Practicing mindfulness, mediation and yoga have also shown to have positive effect on perceived stress levels. And last but not least, do not forget to laugh. Laughter also adds year to your lifespan.

Linda Ernstsen, Associate Professor CERG

Regular exerciser or a weekend warrior: Is there a difference?

fitness_workout_pixabay_wokandapixWe all know that physical activity is good for us.  For that reason, the public health agencies around the world recommend that we undertake regular physical activity.  The recommendations for physical activity are consistent for adults around the world and stipulate that weekly we should accumulate 150 minutes of physical activity at moderate intensity, or 75 minutes of physical activity at vigorous intensity or some combination of the two that results in similar caloric expenditure.  But does it matter if you do the 150 minutes of recommended activity in one day or is it better to do it over the course of the week?

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Are the Norwegians born with skis on their feet?

cross-country-skiingCross country skiing has long traditions in Norway, and Norwegians are known to perform cross-country skiing at the highest international level. There is no doubt that Norway is one of the best cross country skiing nations in the world. And the best skiers today are treated as “pop star icons” by the Norwegian population and the media.

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Holiday weight gain–what can we do?

Anne Berit Johnsen. Photo: Lasse Berre.

I have sat down at the desk to write blog and trying to enjoy a little extra with a cup of coffee and I have pre started on my favorite Christmas chocolate. In a very few days Christmas is coming up and it is time to celebrate with all our favorite Christmas food and plenty of it!!!! I guess I am not the only one that is planning to go back to my normal healthier diet in January, but right now it is all about Christmas and food temptations. Still it has crossed my mind that I might struggle a bit with the extra pounds gained over Christmas.

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Can better fitness help to survive cancer?

Anne Marie Ormbostad BerreCancer is globally increasing and is one of the major threats to healthy aging.  To date we have no indications that this will change for decades. While the relationship between physical fitness and cardiovascular diseases is well documented, the relationship between cancer and cardiorespiratory fitness is less studied.

Physical activity has been shown to  benefit the cancer patients in many ways, such as improved quality of life, reduced fatigue and better cardiorespiratory fitness. In addition, it is well established that being physically active reduces the risk of developing several cancer types.  In fact, as much as one-fifth to one-third of several common cancer types, including breast- and colon cancer, are associated with low levels of physical activity together with obesity. However, the association between cardiorespiratory fitness and cancer survival is less well documented.

Four women running by river

Researchers from Denmark recently published a large long time follow up study where they investigated the association between cardiorespiratory fitness and death from cancer. The study included 5131 cancer free men and tested their cardiorespiratory fitness. The men were followed up for 42 years and during the follow up period 1527 (29.8%) of them died from cancer. Interestingly, the researchers found a highly significant association between cardiorespiratory fitness and death from cancer. For every 10 mL/kg/min increase of estimated cardiorespiratory fitness (measured as maximum oxygen uptake)  risk of death decreased by 17-24%. It must be mentioned that cardiorespiratory fitness was not associated with death from prostate cancer but associated with other groups of cancer.

Based on this study, it is clear that cardiorespiratory fitness should be considered in order to reduce the risk of dying from cancer. Recently a Scientific Statement on Cardiorespiratory Fitness released by the American Heart Association identified cardiorespiratory fitness  as a vital sign, which should be used in clinical practice.

Perhaps the clear association they found in this study between cardiorespiratory fitness and cancer survival can also encourage and inspire us to change our lifestyle.

Anne Marie Ormbostad Berre, PhD student at CERG


Stronger muscles – stronger brain?

ekaterina-zotcheva-ber2596Accumulating scientific evidence indicates that aerobic exercise is beneficial for cognitive functioning and brain plasticity. However, the possible benefits of resistance exercise (i.e. strength exercise, weight lifting) for brain health and functioning hasn’t received as much attention. Is it time we exchange our dumbbells for running shoes? Can stronger muscles provide you with a stronger brain?

According to recent studies, all your squatting and bench-pressing hasn’t been in vain. A randomized controlled study of 155 older women found that resistance exercise once or twice a week for one year promoted executive functions, which are cognitive processes such as attention, working memory, and problem solving. In addition, the women who exercised twice a week demonstrated better memory performance, and less cortical white matter atrophy, which is a loss of brain cells and connections between them. Another study examining effects of resistance exercise in older individuals found that resistance exercise twice a week for a year positively affected cognitive task performance and brain plasticity, which are essential for healthy aging. Even older individuals with mild cognitive impairment could significantly improve their cognitive functioning with resistance exercise and increased muscle strength, a recent study found.

However, you may not have to sweat through months of workouts before experiencing the benefits of resistance exercise. A study showed that just a single bout of resistance training can enhance episodic memory already 48 hours after your first exercise.

In other words, continue doing your push-ups and deadlifts because research shows that stronger muscles may also help you achieve a stronger brain.

Ekatarina Zotcheva, PhD student at CERG

Pokémon Go a no go?

Line Skarsem ReitloIn August a friend of mine told me he had started playing Pokémon Go. Pokémon Go is a smartphone game in which players search real world locations in order to “catch” imaginary cartoon characters appearing on their screen. Thanks to the game my friend was slowly but steadily increasing his physical activity level day by day. He was so eager to catch as many Pokémons as possible so he was actually jogging, not just walking, to the different Pokémon locations. Pokémon Go has been downloaded more than 500 million times since its launch in July and has been a source of motivation for physical activity for both children and adults.

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