Medical News Today: Cancer: 40 percent of all cases related to obesity, overweight

senior man checking his waist circumference
Seniors over the age of 50 who are overweight or obese are at high risk of developing certain types of cancer, suggests a new report.
A new report warns about the role of obesity in cancer. As many as 40 percent of all cancers are related to obesity, according to the new research, which suggests that these cancers would be preventable if weight was kept under control.

The report, entitled Vital Signs, was compiled by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in collaboration with researchers from the National Cancer Institute.

C. Brooke Steele, of CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, is the first and corresponding author of the report.

The findings are particularly important given the alarming statistics on obesity in the United States. Between 2013 and 2014, the CDC note, as many as 2 in 3 adults were deemed overweight or obese.

Being overweight is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 29.9 kilograms per square meter, and obesity is defined as having a BMI of 30 kilograms per square meter and over.

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Studying obesity and cancer diagnoses

Steele and colleagues examined cancer incidence rates using data from the U.S. Cancer Statistics 2014, as well as looking at trends between 2005 and 2014.

More specifically, the researchers looked at the 13 types of cancer that have traditionally been associated with being overweight and having obesity. These include a type of esophageal cancer called esophageal adenocarcinoma, postmenopausal breast cancer, colorectal cancer, endometrial cancer, gallbladder cancer, and gastric cardia cancer.

Additionally, the researchers looked at cancer of the kidney, liver, and thyroid, as well as ovarian and pancreatic cancer. The report also examined meningioma, which is a slow-progressing type of brain tumor, and multiple myeloma.

Steele and team grouped and analyzed the data by sex, age, ethnicity, geographic area, and the site where the cancer appeared.

The researchers analyzed trends both with and without the incidence of colorectal cancer. As they explain, this is due to the fact that screening for colorectal cancer can reduce incidence because the procedure often detects the colorectal polyps before they become malignant.

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Around 630,000 obesity-related cancers

Overall, in 2014, approximately 630,000 people in the U.S. received a diagnosis of one of the aforementioned cancers, which represents a staggering 40 percent of all diagnosed cancers. 

The incidence rate was particularly high among adults aged 50 and above. In fact, 2 in 3 of these cancers occurred in those aged between 50 and 74.

Gender-wise, more cancers were linked with obesity in women than in men. And more specifically, 55 percent of the cancers affecting women and 24 percent of those affecting men were related to obesity.

Regarding obesity-associated cancers, these rose by 7 percent between 2005 and 2014. By comparison, the incidence of cancers not associated with obesity declined by 13 percent during that time. Colorectal cancer also decreased by 23 percent, most likely due to screening practices.

“The burden of overweight- and obesity-related cancer is high in the United States,” say the authors.

They add that it “might be reduced through efforts to prevent and control overweight and obesity,” and they conclude that “[c]omprehensive cancer control strategies, including use of evidence-based interventions to promote healthy weight, could help decrease the incidence of these cancers in the United States.”

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, who is the director of the CDC, comments on the findings.

A majority of American adults weigh more than recommended – and being overweight or obese puts people at higher risk for a number of cancers – so these findings are a cause for concern […] By getting to and keeping a healthy weight, we all can play a role in cancer prevention.”

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald

The CDC have also released a video for public awareness, which you can watch below.

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Medical News Today: Is chocolate good for our skin?

Woman eating chocolate
Can chocolate protect our skin from sun damage?
Packed full of antioxidants, chocolate is increasingly gaining a place among the circle of healthful foods. Some studies show that chocolate may protect the skin from damaging sunlight. However, not all researchers agree.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that a moderate amount of chocolate – especially dark chocolate – is good for our gut health, cholesterol levels, and brain. It may even lower the risk of developing heart disease and stroke.

The health benefits of chocolate are thought to be due to the high levels of antioxidants found in one of the nation’s favorite snacks.

But what about our skin health? Can chocolate prevent skin aging, sunburn, and possibly even skin cancer?

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Chocolate and sunlight

Too much sunlight leaves most people with sunburn. However, excessive sunlight exposure is also a key contributor to skin cancer and skin aging.

Could chocolate, with its high antioxidant levels, protect us from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays? Some believe that it could.

The raw cocoa bean has very high levels of flavanols, a type of antioxidant. But most of these are lost during the process that turns the bean into the chocolate that we know and love.

That being said, chocolate manufacturers are now experimenting with new processes that preserve higher levels of antioxidants.

A study by led Prof. Wilhelm Stahl – from the Institute for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany – and colleagues investigated whether higher antioxidant levels in chocolate could improve the skin’s ability to withstand damage from UV radiation.

For the study, 24 women consumed a chocolate drink that contained either 27 milligrams of flavanols (normal chocolate) or 329 milligrams (high-antioxidant) each morning for 12 weeks.

Prof. Stahl found that the skin of participants who had consumed the high-oxidant chocolate drink did not become as red when exposed to a controlled dose of UV radiation.

But is there a difference between a chocolate drink and solid chocolate?

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Conflicting evidence

In order to further examine the effects of high-antioxidant chocolate, Dr. Stefanie Williams – from the Cosmetic Science Group at London University of the Arts in the United Kingdom – and colleagues performed a study with 30 participants.

The volunteers ate 20 grams of either high-antioxidant or standard chocolate every day for 12 weeks. The high-antioxidant chocolate contained in excess of 600 milligrams of flavanol per portion, while the normal chocolate had fewer than 30 milligrams of flavanols.

What the authors found correlated with Prof. Stahl’s results; the skin of the participants who had eaten the high-antioxidant chocolate was not as sensitive to UV damage.

But the most recent clinical study by Dr. Sylvie Dodin – a professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at St. François d’Assise Hopital, Université Laval in Quebec, Canada – and colleagues did not see the same effect.

For their study, Dr. Dodin and her team used the same high-antioxidant chocolate that Dr. Williams used for her research. But rather than eating 20 grams of chocolate in one sitting each day, the 74 women participating in the study ate 10 grams of chocolate three times per day for 12 weeks.

However, contrary to the findings of Prof. Stahl and Dr. Williams, the consumption of high-antioxidant chocolate did not have a protective effect in the participants.

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The one difference that the authors noted was that skin elasticity, or suppleness, was increased in the high-antioxidant chocolate group.

Chocolate and skin health

So, the jury is still out on whether or not chocolate is a panacea for preventing UV skin damage.

While much is known on the benefits of chocolate on cardiovascular, brain, and gut health, the field of skin research is still in its infancy when it comes to the effects of chocolate.

For now, it might be best to rely on other forms of skin protection and simply enjoy chocolate as part of a healthful, balanced diet.

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Medical News Today: Sleep’s role in memory consolidation unpicked

woman sleeping
New research has started to unpick the mechanism that allows sleep to enhance memory consolidation.
Sleep spindles, a type of brain activity recorded during stage two of sleep, has repeatedly been associated with improving brain plasticity and consolidating memory. Scientists are now drawing closer to explaining the mechanism behind this effect.

It is known that sleep is vital to our normal daily functioning, and that a lack of proper nightly sleep can seriously affect our cognition and general well-being. For instance, Medical News Today recently covered a study that linked disturbed sleep with dementia, and another that investigated the correlation between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and sleeplessness.

Yet many of the mechanisms underlying the impact of sleeping patterns on behavioral and cognitive disorders remain unknown.

Sleep falls into two categories: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Scientists have also identified four different phases in which sleep occurs. Each of these is characterized by different brain activity types.

  • Stage one NREM. This refers to the transition from a state of wakefulness to a state of sleep, during which normal brain activity slows down. It is a stage of light sleep, from which one can easily be awoken.

  • Stage two NREM. This is also a stage of light sleep, yet it is slightly deeper than the one before. This stage is also transitional – this time from the light initial sleep to a state of deep sleep. It is characterized by short bursts of electrical activity, some of which are known as “sleep spindles.”

  • Stage three NREM. This is a state of deep sleep during which brain activity slows even more. In this stage, the muscles fully relax, and heartbeat and breathing slow down. Immersion in this stage is associated with feeling refreshed the morning after.

  • REM. This is the stage of sleep during which dreaming happens. In this stage, brain activity patterns are mixed, with electrical brain waves sometimes peaking and sometimes slowing down.

Sleep spindles and ‘adaptive brain changes’

Emerging research from the Humboldt and Charité Universities in Berlin, Germany, has looked at the mechanism that allows sleep spindles – a part of stage two NREM – to improve brain plasticity, or the brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize by forming fresh neural connections.

“It is becoming increasingly clear,” explains lead study author Dr. Julie Seibt, from the University of Surrey in Guildford, United Kingdom, “that sleep plays an important role in [the brain’s] adaptive changes.”

“Our study tells us that a large proportion of these changes may occur during very short and repetitive brain waves called spindles,” she adds.

The researchers have recently published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

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Dendritic spikes tied to sleep spindles

Dr. Seibt and her colleagues performed their research first on mice who were exposed to 12-hour cycles of light alternated with dark and given free access to both food and drink, and then on freely behaving rats.

The researchers used electroencephalogram testing to record sleep spindles in stage two NREM. Also, since previous research indicated that dendritic calcium spikes were also associated with improved brain plasticity, the researchers set to measure those, too.

Dendrites are the branched receiving ends of neurons, which allow nerve cells to “pick up” electric signals, and the levels of calcium detectable at the intercellular level are indicators of neural activity.

Dr. Seibt and team found that dendritic calcium spikes increase in frequency during stage two of sleep, and that they are linked to sleep spindles, which have been associated with memory formation and learning.

This activity, however, was only observed in the cerebral cortex, which is the outer layer of the brain.

“Sleep spindles,” explains Dr. Seibt, “have been associated with memory formation in humans for quite some time but nobody knew what they were actually doing in the brain.”

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“Now,” she continues, “we know that during spindles, specific pathways are activated in dendrites, maybe allowing our memories to be reinforced during sleep.”

The researcher hopes that these new insights into how sleep helps memory consolidation may eventually allow scientists to devise new ways of tackling memory disorders.

“In the near future, techniques that allow brain stimulation […] could be used to stimulate dendrites with the same frequency range as spindles,” she explains.

This could lead to enhance[d] cognitive functions in patients with learning and memory disorders, such as dementia.”

Dr. Julie Seibt

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Medical News Today: Playing video games may ‘enhance learning’

man playing a video game
People who play video games regularly have more active learning- and memory-related brain regions than those who don’t.
In a learning test, people who play video games performed better than those who don’t, and their brains appeared to be more active in regions linked to learning and memory.

So concludes a study from Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany that was published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research.

The researchers explain that recent studies have suggested that playing video games may benefit cognition. However, the brain mechanisms involved are poorly understood.

They focused on “a widely unexplored area in gaming research” called “probabilistic category learning.” This type of learning concerns acquiring and classifying knowledge and using it to predict future events.

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Weather prediction task

A traditional way of testing probabilistic category learning is the so-called weather prediction task, which researchers use to gain “insight into implicit forms of learning, cognitive flexibility, and the use of feedback signals in the brain.”

For their investigation, the team recruited 17 video gamers and 17 non-gamers. They recruited the video gamers on the basis that they spent at least 15 hours per week playing action-based video games. The non-gamers either did not play at all or did so only infrequently.

Both groups played the weather prediction task. As they completed it, the researchers used MRI to record their brain activity.

To complete the task, the participants had to look at three cue cards with different patterns on them and then predict the weather. They were asked, “Will there be sun or rain?” They were then told straight away whether their answer was right or wrong.

As each card is only a partially accurate predictor of the weather, the correct answer is determined by the probability predicted by the combination.

For example, a combination of cue cards might contain: a card whose pattern means a 20 percent chance of rain and 80 percent chance of sun; a second card that means 80 percent chance of rain and 20 percent chance of sun; and a third that means 60 percent chance of rain and 40 percent chance of sun. The outcome of this combination would be rain.

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Gamers retained more factual knowledge

The subjects performed the task again and again, with different combinations of cue cards. Thus, by receiving feedback, they learned which card combinations were related to which weather condition.

After they finished the task, the participants completed a questionnaire that tested how much knowledge they had retained about the cue card combinations.

The researchers found that the video gamers performed much better at predicting weather outcomes from cue card combinations than the non-gamers.

Even though some of the cue card combinations had a high uncertainty, the gamers still out-performed the non-gamers.

When the researchers analyzed the participants’ questionnaire responses, they found that the video gamers had retained more factual knowledge about the cue card combinations and the associated weather outcomes.

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‘Gaming trains the hippocampus’

Analysis of the MRI scans revealed that both gamers and non-gamers showed the same level of activity in brain areas that are linked to “attention and executive function” and certain “memory-associated regions.”

However, the scans also showed notable brain differences between gamers and non-gamers. For example, the gamers showed stronger activity in the hippocampus and other brain areas that are important for “semantic memory, visual imagery, and cognitive control.”

“We think that playing video games trains certain brain regions like the hippocampus,” says first study author Sabrina Schenk.

The study’s findings are likely to be significant not only for young people, but also for older generations, because reduction in memory is linked to changes in the hippocampus.

“Maybe we can treat that with video games in the future,” suggests Schenk.

Our study shows that gamers are better in analyzing a situation quickly, to generate new knowledge and to categorize facts – especially in situations with high uncertainties.”

Sabrina Schenk

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Medical News Today: Eustachian tube dysfunction: Causes, symptoms, and treatment

The eustachian tube runs from the middle ear to the back of the nose and throat. If this tube becomes plugged or infected, it can cause eustachian tube dysfunction.

There are a few different causes of eustachian tube dysfunction (ETD), and certain factors may make a person more at risk. Eustachian tube dysfunction is often easily treated at home, although persistent symptoms may require a trip to the doctor for treatment.

What are the eustachian tubes?

eustachian tubes
The eustachian tubes (red tube at the back of the ear in diagram) drain excess fluid and regulate ear pressure.

The eustachian tubes are canals on each side of the face that run from the back of the nose and upper throat to the middle ear. They remain closed most of the time but will open as a person swallows, chews, or yawns.

The eustachian tubes help regulate ear pressure and drain excess fluid from the middle ear, moving it to the throat to be eliminated.

The canals in these tubes are tiny so blockages can happen for many reasons. Blocked eustachian tubes can cause discomfort and hearing problems, and any of these symptoms can be referred to as ETD.

What causes ETD?

ETD covers a broad range of symptoms and has a range of potential causes. Season allergies and illnesses that create inflammation in the area, such as the flu or cold, are common causes of ETD.

Sinus infections can also trigger ETD, as a sinus infection causes the eustachian tubes to become inflamed or filled with mucus. More serious infections can cause ETD as well.

Simple changes in altitude or air pressure may also trigger ETD. Driving up a mountain or sitting in a plane can cause ETD, and even just riding the elevator in a tall building may be enough for some people to develop unpleasant symptoms.

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Risk factors

scuba diving
ETD symptoms may be triggered by scuba diving and high altitude hiking.

It is common to experience ETD occasionally, but some people get symptoms more regularly than others. People who smoke may be more at risk for experiencing ETD, as smoking damages the delicate hairs in the throat and middle ear.

People who are obese may also be more likely to experience ETD symptoms. This is because fatty tissue deposits can form around the eustachian tubes, making it more likely that they will become closed off.

People with allergies may also experience ETD more often, as allergies can cause increased mucus and congestion.

Engaging in certain activities may also put a person more at risk for pressure changes, which could trigger ETD symptoms. These activities include things like:

  • hiking at a high altitude

  • rock climbing

  • skiing or snowboarding

  • scuba diving

Children are also more at risk for ETD, as their eustachian tubes are much smaller and so more likely to become clogged by mucus or germs. A child’s immune system is also less able to fight off infections, as it is not fully developed. Children have more frequent colds and sinus infections, which are direct causes of ETD.


Symptoms of ETD can vary from mild to severe and may be different for each person. Common symptoms include:

  • a plugged feeling in the ears

  • ears feeling like they are filled with water

  • tinnitus, or ringing in the ear

  • muffled hearing or partial hearing loss

  • ticking or popping sounds

  • pain and tenderness around the ear

  • a tickling or tingling sensation

  • trouble with balance

The length and severity of ETD symptoms depend on their cause. For instance, if ETD is caused by a change in altitude, these symptoms will often go away as the body adjusts to the pressure or reaches a lower altitude.

On the other hand, ETD caused by an illness or infection can last much longer. Anyone with symptoms of ETD that last more than 2 weeks should see a doctor. Children with symptoms of ETD should see a doctor sooner, as the symptoms of ETD are similar to an ear infection.


ETD is often easily diagnosed during a visit to a doctor. The doctor may ask questions about hearing changes, pain in the ears, or feelings of pressure. They will also look inside the ear using an otoscope, checking for any signs of infection or blockages.

If ETD is being caused by another illness or disorder, the doctor may ask questions about that as well in order to determine the correct treatment.

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The symptoms of ETD will usually clear up on their own. If another illness is causing the symptoms, they will resolve once the underlying illness is treated.

Home remedies

lady putting a piece of chewing gum in her mouth
Minor ETD symptoms may be treated by forcing a yawn or chewing gum.

If the symptoms of ETD are bothersome, some simple home remedies may help. Minor ETD symptoms, such as those caused by a change in altitude or air pressure, can be treated by chewing gum or forcing a yawn.

Many people also find that the symptoms of minor ETD can go away as they swallow, so drinking or having a snack may help. These remedies help open and close the eustachian tube and relieve the pressure.

Children experiencing minor or temporary ETD symptoms can eat a snack or chew a piece of gum. Giving an infant a bottle or pacifier may help relieve the symptoms.

Minor to moderate symptoms may be relieved using a saline nasal spray or irrigation system. Sometimes dried mucus or other particles can get stuck in or near the eustachian tube and cause symptoms. Clearing the passageways can help eliminate anything clogged in the passage.

Ear candles

Despite what many ear candle manufacturers say, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found no valid evidence that ear candles will help clear symptoms of ETD. Ear candles are not a recommended treatment for any ear-related symptoms.

Over-the-counter medication

Depending on the cause, some over-the-counter drugs may help with ETD symptoms. Someone who experiences ETD caused by allergies may find relief using antihistamines such as cetirizine (Zyrtec), diphenhydramine (Benadryl), or loratadine (Alavert, Claritin).

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, may help with pain and swelling.

Medical intervention

If the symptoms of ETD are caused by a bacterial infection, a doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics. This may be a topical treatment or an oral antibiotic. In severe cases of ETD, a doctor may prescribe oral steroids as well.

Long lasting, severe cases of ETD are not common but can require extensive and sometimes invasive treatments. In some cases, fluids build up behind the eardrum and cannot escape through the dysfunctional eustachian tubes. In these cases, doctors may make a small cut in the eardrum to help with fluid drainage.

People who experience frequent severe ETD may be treated using pressure equalization tubes. These are implants that balance the pressure in the ears and help reduce the chances of middle ear infections. New treatment methods, such as eustachian tube balloon dilation, are also being studied.


ETD is common, but most cases resolve with little or no help. Treating the underlying cause is the best way to treat and prevent recurring symptoms of ETD.

Children or adults who get frequent ear infections should talk to a doctor to consider more thorough treatments.

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Medical News Today: Kojic acid: Side effects and benefits

Kojic acid is a chemical produced from different types of fungi. It is also a by-product of fermented soy sauce and rice wine.

Kojic acid is sometimes used in the food industry as a natural preservative. One of the main uses of kojic acid, however, is in some health and cosmetic products.

In this article, we look at how kojic acid is used, what possible health benefits it might have, and what the potential risks and side effects are.

How is kojic acid used?

brand less beauty products
Kojic acid is mainly used in health and beauty products.

Kojic acid is sometimes used in health and beauty products to lighten the skin. It may be used to treat skin conditions, such as sun damage, scars, and age spots.

The science behind how kojic acid works as a lightening agent involves its effect on melanin production.

Melanin is a naturally occurring pigment in the body that gives the eyes, hair, and skin their color. An amino acid called tyrosine is needed to support the production of melanin.

Kojic acid works by blocking tyrosine from forming, which then prevents melanin production. Decreased melanin production may have a lightening effect on the skin.

Kojic acid is most commonly used in cosmetic products, such as creams, lotions, and serums. It is also used in some soaps. Many products with kojic acid are intended for use on the hands or face.

Products containing kojic acid can also be used on other parts of the body, such as the legs and arms. The concentration of kojic acid in cosmetics is often between 1 and 4 percent

Certain products containing kojic acid, such as serums, are meant to be applied to the skin and left on and absorbed. Some products, such as soaps, are applied and washed off.

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Potential benefits of kojic acid

The benefits of using products containing kojic acid may include the following:

  • Anti-aging effect: Products containing kojic acid may lighten the skin, which can improve the appearance of age spots and sun damage. The reduction of dark spots can have an anti-aging effect.

  • Treat melasma: Kojic acid may also be helpful in decreasing melasma, which is darkening of the skin due to pregnancy.

  • Decrease the appearance of scars: Kojic acid may also reduce the discoloration of scars. Although the acid does not improve the thickness of scar tissue, it may reduce dark pigmentation associated with certain types of scars. Lightening the scar may make it less noticeable.

  • Antifungal benefits: Kojic acid is also thought to have some antifungal benefits. It may be helpful in preventing and treating certain fungal infections, such as athlete’s foot and yeast infections.

  • Antibacterial effects: Kojic acid may also provide antibacterial benefits. It may help decrease the chances of developing common types of bacterial skin infections.

Is kojic acid safe?

fda approved stamp
Cosmetic products are not regulated by the FDA.

Before using products containing kojic acid, it is important to make sure they are safe.

Cosmetic products are not regulated the same way medicines and foods are. Cosmetic products are not required by law to be approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before being sold.

The FDA do have a voluntary registration program for cosmetic manufacturers in which companies can report how their products are made. Also, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel reviews safety.

A review of kojic acid found that some studies in mice suggested there was a link to tumor growth when the acid was used in high concentrations.

However, this link was weak since kojic acid is slowly absorbed into the circulation. It is unlikely that levels would become high enough to cause cancer in humans.

According to the reviewers, the available data suggest that the use of products containing kojic acid with a concentration of 2 percent for products left on the skin is considered safe.

The CIR Expert Panel agreed that kojic acid could be safely used in cosmetic products.

Raw kojic acid is available, but it is not recommended for skin use. Kojic acid should be diluted to concentrations of no more than 4 percent. A concentration of 1 to 2 percent is recommended to reduce the chance of skin irritation.

Trying to add raw kojic acid to creams or lotions may be difficult and result in levels that are irritating to the skin. Using pre-made skin lotions and creams that already contain kojic acid in specific concentrations may be a better option.

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Risks and side effects

Although the use of products containing kojic acid may be considered safe for most people, there are some risks and possible side effects.

Side effects may include:

Skin may sunburn easily

Using kojic acid may make someone more likely to develop a sunburn. Melanin helps protect the skin from sun damage due to UV rays.

Since kojic acid prevents melanin production, it leaves the skin more vulnerable to sunburn.

Contact dermatitis

Kojic acid can lead to contact dermatitis in some people, especially those with sensitive skin.

Contact dermatitis can cause a rash, itching, and dry patches of skin. In severe cases, pain and blisters can develop.

The concentration of kojic acid in creams, serums, and soaps may vary by manufacturer. Products with a higher concentration of kojic acid may be more likely to lead to irritation.


doctor looking at the skin on a patient s arm
Before using any products containing kojic acid, people may be recommended to talk with a dermatologist.

Kojic acid may be helpful for people who have dark spots on their skin due to sun damage, aging, or scars. Some people with certain skin conditions or allergies may be advised not to use kojic acid, however.

It is always best to talk to a dermatologist to make sure using products containing kojic acid is safe.

A dermatologist can also provide recommendations on specific products, including the frequency of use and the concentration strength.

Some people may see results after a few weeks, although it may take longer in certain situations. Products containing kojic acid may only be recommended to be used for a brief time.

When choosing products, people should be sure to follow their directions for use. It is also important to make sure the product contains the concentration of kojic acid recommended by a dermatologist.

People who develop a rash or irritation when using products containing kojic acid should stop using them immediately. If symptoms do not clear up in a few days, it is best to see a doctor.

People should not use kojic acid on skin that is already red or irritated. It should also not be used on broken skin.

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Medical News Today: Brain response to unfairness ‘predicts depression’

newtons cradle on a blackboard
The results of a new study have shown that the brain’s response to economic inequity can predict depression.
New research finds that brain responses to unfair treatment in a computer game involving money rewards can predict whether healthy people will develop symptoms of depression.

The researchers, from the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology in Osaka and Tamagawa University in Tokyo, both in Japan, have published their findings in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

Experts suggest that the imaging study offers new insights into how mechanisms in the brain might explain the link between economic inequity and depression.

Depression is a global public health problem that affects more than 300 million people, and it is the “leading cause of disability worldwide.” In the United States alone, depression affects around 7.6 percent of people aged 12 and older and cost the nation $210.5 billion in 2010.

People living below the poverty line in the U.S. are more than twice as likely to have depression than people living at or above it.

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Economic inequity and depression

In their study report, the researchers write that economic inequity has become “an increasing concern for society,” and they cite previous studies that have linked it to depression and other psychiatric diseases.

They refer to large studies, such as Whitehall II, that have found links between “economic gaps and major depression, where economic and material disadvantage are crucial in explaining depressive symptoms.”

However, because the brain mechanism underlying the link is less well understood, they decided to investigate it further.

The team used functional MRI to scan brain activity of healthy individuals as they played a computer game wherein they were asked to accept or reject offers to split a pot of money between themselves and a “virtual partner.”

There were three types of offer: one in which the two players received equal shares of the money (“equity”); another in which the participant got more (“advantageous inequity”); and another in which the virtual partner got more (“disadvantageous inequity”).

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Individualists and prosocials

At the time of playing the game, the participants were also asked to complete two other tests: the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and a test that measures their “social value orientation.” They also completed the BDI a year later.

The team found that the participants with “individualist” social orientation tended to be more selfish and keep the money in unfair advantageous offers.

In contrast, the “prosocial” participants tended to be more self-sacrificing and rejected offers wherein the money was not split equally.

The researchers then analyzed measures of brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus in response to types of offer and depression scores.

It was found that for the disadvantageous offers, the response in the amygdala and hippocampus predicted current depression scores and changes in symptoms 1 year later. This was true of both prosocials and individualists.

But when the team analyzed the results for advantageous offers, they found that the amygdala and hippocampus responses only predicted depression in prosocials.

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‘Critical effect on mood’

The researchers note that these various predictions “were not possible using participants’ behavioral and socioeconomic status measures.”

They suggest that the findings show that even healthy people’s response to inequity may have “far-reaching implications for their mood.”

They call for further studies to build on the results to find ways to better identify and protect people from mental illness.

In an accompanying commentary, Megan Speer and Mauricio Delgado – both of Rutgers University in Newark, NJ – describe the research as “thought-provoking” and suggest that it “highlights potential risk factors that can precipitate or exacerbate the debilitating nature of depression.”

These findings suggest that sensitivity to economic inequity has a critical effect on human mood states, and the amygdala and hippocampus play a key role in individual differences in the effect.”

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Medical News Today: Coping with panic disorder

woman looking worried
Panic disorder can be frightening, but it is highly responsive to treatment strategies.
Do you experience sudden attacks of anxiety, fear, and panic? Perhaps your heart races, you feel unable to breathe or think properly, and you sweat. Do these attacks have no obvious trigger? Here are some of the best ways to cope with panic disorder to improve your quality of life.

Panic disorder affects 2 to 3 percent of people in the United States per year, and it is twice as likely to occur in women than in men. Individuals with panic disorder tend to have spontaneous panic attacks, and they therefore become preoccupied with the fear that they may happen again, at any time.

The condition can interfere with many aspects of the person’s life, causing them to avoid work or school and avoid situations wherein they fear a panic attack may occur.

Many people with panic disorder are embarrassed or afraid to tell anyone about what they experience, instead distancing themselves from family and friends who could be supportive.

Panic disorder is highly responsive to treatment. Building a toolbox of self-help strategies can be effective in helping you to manage your symptoms without living in fear. Here are Medical News Today‘s tips for coping with panic disorder.

1. Gain knowledge of panic disorder

The first step in overcoming your panic disorder symptoms is to understand what is happening in your body when you experience an attack. Gathering knowledge about the disorder and working out your underlying triggers can be a starting point for dealing with the condition.

sad man looking out of a window
Learning about anxiety and panic disorder can help you to take control of your condition.

Anxiety is likely to cause the worries and physical feelings you feel as a part of panic disorder. Anxiety is a normal part of the body’s “fight-or-flight” response to uncertainty, feeling unprepared, or trouble, which prepares us to act quickly in the face of danger.

Panic disorder results from misinterpreting sensations linked with the fight-or-flight response as dangerous, which triggers an uncomfortable and often frightening barrage of symptoms – also known as a panic attack.

Living in fear of having a panic attack and therefore avoiding situations that may cause them can often create more situations and more avoidance in a never-ending cycle of fear and anxiety.

Although scary, panic attacks are harmless; they are the body’s alarm system kicking in and are not designed to harm you in any way.

While the response may make you feel as though you are going crazy or dying, you are not. Your body would have the same reaction if you were facing a physical threat, such as coming face to face with a bear.

Once you understand what panic disorder is and why you are experiencing the symptoms, you can begin to learn to cope with them. The goal is not to eliminate the attacks, but to find a way to manage them without fear.

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2. Learn relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques can help to calm your body down, relax your muscles, and help you to think more rationally. Relaxation strategies can also halt the production of stress hormones such as adrenalin, which proves that we are not in any danger.

Calm breathing

When we are anxious, we tend to breathe faster, or even hyperventilate. This is commonly called overbreathing, and it can cause us to feel lightheaded and dizzy, and even more anxious as a result.

woman calm breathing on her bed
Calm breathing can reduce some of the associated sensations of a panic attack.

Calm breathing can help to reduce some of these physical symptoms. Try practicing calm breathing twice per day for at least 5 minutes.

  • Inhale slowly through the nose for 4 seconds.

  • Pause for 1 or 2 seconds.

  • Exhale slowly through your mouth for 4 seconds.

  • Pause for a couple of seconds before taking the next breath.

Calm breathing regulates your intake of oxygen and prevents the dizziness, lightheadedness, and tingling sensations that are connected with overbreathing.

Deep muscle relaxation

The goal of deep muscle relaxation is to learn to eliminate muscular tension and stress. Deep muscle relaxation should be practiced every day as a prevention mechanism, not just when you feel panic and stress.

First, you need to tense particular muscle groups in your body, such as your neck and shoulders. Next, you need to release that tension. Set aside around 15 minutes to complete deep muscle relaxation.

  • Tense the target muscle group.

  • Deep breathe and tense the muscles as much as possible for 5 seconds.

  • Release the tension and exhale.

  • Remain relaxed for 15 seconds before moving on to the next muscle group.

It is important to focus on the difference between how your muscles feel when they are tense and how they feel when relaxed.

3. Challenge your thoughts

The thoughts associated with panic attacks are grouped into two categories: overestimating and catastrophizing. To break the cycle of panic attacks, we first need to change the way that we think and then change our actions.

Challenging overestimating

To challenge your overestimating thoughts, you first need to understand that overestimating thoughts are guesses about what will happen – they are not facts. Next, you need to assess the evidence for and against your thoughts.

woman thinking while holding a notebook
Challenging overestimating and catasphophic thinking can help to break the panic attack cycle.

Some questions that you can ask yourself include:

  • How often have I had this thought during a panic attack?

  • Has it ever actually happened?

  • Next time I have this thought during a panic attack, is it likely to happen?

It can be helpful to remember that your fears are highly unlikely to happen and while you have had these thoughts many times, your fears have not come true.

Challenging catastrophizing

To challenge catastrophic thoughts, imagine the worst possible thing that could happen and then figure out how you would cope.

Some questions that you can ask yourself include:

  • What is the worst that could happen?

  • How bad is it, really?

  • Would it affect my life in a week or a month from now?

  • What actions could I take to cope if it did happen?

  • Has this occurred in the past? Did it make a difference to my life?

It can be useful to realize that some of the things you fear are more of a minor annoyance than something to be distressed about, and there are ways that you can cope with every situation.

When you feel anxious or feel the need to escape a situation, you can challenge your unhelpful thoughts. Writing them down can sometimes help.

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4. Make coping cards

However, it can be tough to challenge unhelpful or scary thoughts in times of severe anxiety, so it might be useful to make coping cards.

Coping cards can feature realistic thoughts about panic attacks to challenge your thinking. You can use an index card or piece of paper, write down some realistic thoughts, and carry them around with you throughout the day.

Everyone’s fears are different and personal, but here are some examples of general coping statements that might help you.

  • This is a hassle, not a horror.

  • I’m falling into a thinking trap.

  • I’ve confused a thought with a fact.

  • People cannot tell that I’m anxious.

  • It won’t last forever.

  • I can handle this.

In addition to reading these cards when you feel anxious, it can be beneficial to read these cards daily to remind yourself to alter your thinking.

5. Face your fears

The final step in coping with panic disorder in the long-term is to face what you fear, including the unpleasant body sensations and situations, places, and activities that you have been avoiding.

Through a process called desensitization, your exaggerated responses to certain triggers can be reduced, so that they no longer activate the same involuntary anxiety reaction.

Facing feared body sensations

People with panic disorder are often sensitive to sensations such as dizziness, blurred vision, and increased heart rate. These sensations need to be brought on repeatedly so that eventually, they no longer make you anxious.

To expose yourself to the panic disorder sensations that you fear, you can do the following exercises.

person running up some steps
Exposing yourself to sensations experienced during a panic attack through exercises can desensitize you to certain triggers.

  • Racing heart: run on the spot for 1 minute.

  • Chest discomfort: run up and down stairs for 1 minute.

  • Breathlessness: breathe deeply and rapidly for 1 minute.

  • Choking sensations: pinch your nostrils and breathe in and out through a small straw for 1 minute.

  • Dizziness: shake your head from side to side for 30 seconds.

  • Blurred vision: stare at a ceiling light for 1 minute and then try to read something.

Start with the sensation that you fear the least and work your way up to the sensation that you fear the most.

Facing feared situations and places

You need to overcome situations, places, and activities that you have been avoiding due to the fear of having panic attacks.

Make a list of situations, places, activities, and objects that you fear in order from the least feared to the most feared. Begin with exposing yourself to the thing that you fear the least and repeatedly engage in that activity until you feel less anxious.

Exposure can be brief at first and then extended. Perhaps you could go to the place with a friend or family member to begin with and then tackle going there on your own.

It is important to plan your exposure exercises to feel in control of the situation. Work out what you are going to do and when you plan to do it.

Facing the things you fear most can sometimes be frightening. Take your time and go at your own pace, and you will eventually overcome anxiety.

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Medical News Today: Regular sauna use could slash men’s hypertension risk

a middle aged man in a sauna
Researchers suggest that regular sauna use could lower men’s risk of high blood pressure.
Sauna bathing may be more than just a relaxing pastime; a new study finds that regular sauna use could almost halve men’s risk of developing high blood pressure.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, occurs when the force of blood that flows through the arteries becomes too high.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 75 million adults in the United States have high blood pressure.

It is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, and in 2014, high blood pressure was a main or contributing cause of death for more than 410,000 people in the U.S.

Following a healthful diet, getting regular exercise, and managing weight are just some of the strategies that can help to prevent or manage high blood pressure.

The new study suggests that for men, adding sauna bathing to their weekly routine may also help to lower the risk of this potentially harmful condition.

Study co-author Dr. Francesco Zaccardi, of the Department of Medicine at the University of Eastern Finland, and colleagues recently reported their findings in the American Journal of Hypertension.

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Sauna bathing and blood pressure

In a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2015, Dr. Zaccardi and colleagues linked regular sauna use with a reduced risk of cardiovascular death.

For their new study, the researchers sought to determine whether a reduction in high blood pressure as a result of sauna use could be an underlying mechanism for their previous results.

To reach their findings, the team analyzed the data of 1,621 men aged 42 to 60 years who were involved in the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study.

Over a median 24.7 years of follow-up, the team monitored the development of high blood pressure among participants, defined as having a blood pressure over 140/90 millimeters of mercury.

The sauna bathing habits of subjects were also assessed, and they were divided into three groups based on their frequency of sauna use: one sauna session per week, two to three sessions each week, and four to seven sessions per week.

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Hypertension risk up to 46 percent lower

During follow-up, a total of 251 men developed high blood pressure. Compared with men who had just one sauna bathing session per week, men who had two to three sessions every week were found to have a 24 percent lower risk of developing high blood pressure.

Also, the hypertension risk was 46 percent lower for men who had four to seven sauna sessions weekly.

The team suggests a number of mechanisms behind their findings. They note that the increase in body temperature during sauna bathing can cause blood vessels to dilate, which can increase blood flow.

Additionally, they explain that regular sauna use can improve the function of the endothelium – the tissue that lines the inside of blood vessels – which can improve blood pressure.

While further studies are now needed to determine how sauna use impacts cardiovascular function, Dr. Zaccardi and team believe that their findings provide some insight.

Regular sauna bathing is associated with reduced risk of hypertension, which may be a mechanism underlying the decreased cardiovascular risk associated with sauna use.”

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Medical News Today: Hemifacial spasm: Symptoms, causes, and treatment

Hemifacial spasm is a condition in which the muscles contract in tics or twitches on one side of the face, usually the left. People do not have control over these spasms, and very often they continue even during sleep.

Hemifacial spasm is usually not painful and not considered a health hazard. In advanced cases, however, the eyes may remain squeezed shut for long enough to become dangerous when driving, for example.

Both men and women can develop these facial twitches, but women, especially middle-aged and older women, develop hemifacial spasm at about twice the rate of men. The condition is also somewhat more common in Asian people.

It is a rare condition, seen in approximately 11 out of 100,000 people.

In this article, we look at different types of hemifacial spasms, the symptoms that can occur, and what can be done about them.


human head silhouette showing facial nerve
Hemifacial spasm causes the muscles on one side of the face to contract.

Hemifacial spasm is different from other nerve and muscle conditions affecting the face because it tends to affect only one side of the face.

However, there are differences between what is considered typical for hemifacial spasm and other forms of the condition.

A study of 215 people being examined for hemifacial spasm found that:

  • 62 percent were most likely caused by a vein putting pressure on the facial nerve

  • 18 percent had tics that mimicked hemifacial spasm but were not actually examples of the disease

  • 11 percent were due to Bell’s Palsy

  • 6 percent were the result of injuries to the facial nerve

  • 2 percent were linked to hereditary causes

Fewer than 1 percent of cases were caused by direct damage to nerves or the brain’s circulatory system


The first sign of hemifacial spasm is usually a twitching in the muscles of the left eyelid. These spasms can be strong enough to pull the eye closed and cause tears to form.

If left untreated, the symptoms of hemifacial spasm can become more severe and affect more and more facial muscles. Twitches can affect the muscles of the mouth and pull it to one side.

Over time, all the muscles on one side of the face can be pulled into a permanent frown. Some individuals may develop spasms on both sides of the face.

Ear pain, a “clicking” in the ear, and changes in hearing can also be symptoms of this condition. Hearing loss also sometimes occurs.

Around 13 percent of people taking part in one study reported a loss of hearing. However, this hearing loss did not appear to relate to how serious their hemifacial spasm symptoms were.

Symptoms of hemifacial spasm usually develop when people are between 40 and 50 years of age.

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Causes and associated conditions

Hemifacial spasm is caused by irritation to the seventh cranial nerve. This nerve is known as the facial nerve and controls the muscles of the face. It also transmits information about the sense of taste from the tongue and sensations in the ear.

The most frequent source of irritation is a small artery pressing on the facial nerve near the brain stem. Other potential causes include:

  • a benign tumor or lesion pressing on the nerve

  • abnormal clusters of blood vessels at birth

  • nerve injury

Hereditary cases of hemifacial spasm have been identified, although they are not common.

In some cases, hemifacial spasm is the first symptom of multiple sclerosis or MS. When people have MS, their immune system attacks the central nervous system, which results in a wide variety of symptoms.

However, this is extremely rare, with scientific studies showing only 1-6 occasions out of several hundred cases in which MS was identified as the cause of a hemifacial spasm.

Although it is rare, doctors still need to check for MS as a possible cause when people under age 40 have a hemifacial spasm.


doctor looking at brain MRI scans
MRI and CT scans can be used to diagnose the cause of facial spasms.

Facial tics are the key sign of hemifacial spasm. Doctors will observe the person and take a medical history, noting how severe the twitches are and how long the person has had them.

The doctor will then use medical imaging tests to find out what is irritating the facial nerve and rule out the possibility of tumors or brain lesions being the cause. These tests may include:

  • magnetic resource imaging (MRI)

  • computed tomography (CT scan)

  • angiography (arteriography)

If imaging tests do not find tumors or lesions, doctors will likely assume that pressure from a blood vessel is causing the hemifacial spasm. These tests cannot always locate the blood vessel that is irritating the facial nerve, however, because the blood vessels are so small.

A hemifacial spasm can be confused with other movement disorders that affect the face. These include facial nerve tics and eyelid spasms. These two conditions affect different areas of the face, and not just one side, which helps doctors accurately diagnose this condition.


To date, researchers have not discovered any ways of preventing hemifacial spasms.

As the spasms are involuntary, the only way to prevent the onset of muscle twitches once the condition develops is through treatment.

Stress, fatigue, and anxiety have been shown to make the condition worse, so people trying to minimize their symptoms may want to try to avoid these triggers, where possible.

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The two main ways to treat hemifacial spasm are through injections or surgery.


Botulinum toxin (Botox) shots are used to paralyze the facial muscles and stop the twitching.

These treatments are helpful for 85 to 95 percent of people. The effects wear off after 3 to 6 months so users will need follow-up treatment on a regular basis.


man having botox injection to face
Botox shots may improve facial twitches for up to 6 months.

Although surgery is more involved and invasive, it also provides more permanent and immediate relief.

In a procedure known as microvascular decompression, a surgeon moves the irritating artery away from the facial nerve and places a pad on the nerve to protect it from future compression.

This surgery is reported to be effective 85 percent of the time. It is considered especially helpful for young people and those in the early stages of this condition.

This procedure does have some risk, with one study finding a 1.5 to 8 percent risk of hearing impairment due to this surgery.

Treatment with medication alone has not been found to be effective for this condition.


Stress caused by this condition’s uncontrollable twitches is one of the most important side effects of hemifacial spasm. However, as people can relieve their symptoms with injections or surgery, the outlook can be good.

It is important for people to seek treatment and take an active role in their care. Their condition is likely to get worse if it is left untreated, so they should be aware of all the treatment options available.

One study found that close to 50 percent of people treated by one team had to learn about the surgical option for hemifacial spasm through their own efforts.

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