mental health

'Personality Genes' May Help Account for Longevity

Laughing, being optimistic, staying engaged in activities, and being outgoing can help you live longer? These personality traits appear to be common among those that live to be 100. May 24, 2012 — "It's in their genes" is a common refrain from scientists when asked about factors that allow centenarians to reach age 100 and beyond. Up until now, research has focused on genetic variations that offer a physiological advantage such as high levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol. But researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology of Yeshiva University have found that personality traits like being outgoing, optimistic, easygoing, and enjoying laughter as well as staying engaged in activities may also be part of the longevity genes mix.

The findings, published online May 21 in the journal Aging, come from Einstein's Longevity Genes Project, which includes over 500 Ashkenazi Jews over the age of 95, and 700 of their offspring. Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews were selected because they are genetically homogeneous, making it easier to spot genetic differences within the study population.

Previous studies have indicated that personality arises from underlying genetic mechanisms that may directly affect health. The present study of 243 of the centenarians (average age 97.6 years, 75 percent women) was aimed at detecting genetically-based personality characteristics by developing a brief measure (the Personality Outlook Profile Scale, or POPS) of personality in centenarians.

"When I started working with centenarians, I thought we'd find that they survived so long in part because they were mean and ornery," said Nir Barzilai, M.D., the Ingeborg and Ira Leon Rennert Chair of Aging Research, director of Einstein's Institute for Aging Research and co-corresponding author of the study. "But when we assessed the personalities of these 243 centenarians, we found qualities that clearly reflect a positive attitude towards life. Most were outgoing, optimistic and easygoing. They considered laughter an important part of life and had a large social network. They expressed emotions openly rather than bottling them up." In addition, the centenarians had lower scores for displaying neurotic personality and higher scores for being conscientious compared with a representative sample of the U.S. population.

"Some evidence indicates that personality can change between the ages of 70 and 100, so we don't know whether our centenarians have maintained their personality traits across their entire lifespans," continued Dr. Barzilai. "Nevertheless, our findings suggest that centenarians share particular personality traits and that genetically-based aspects of personality may play an important role in achieving both good health and exceptional longevity."

The study is titled "Positive attitude towards life and emotional expression as personality phenotypes for centenarians." The POPS was developed by lead author Kaori Kato, Psy.D., now at Weill Cornell Medical College, who validated it through comparisons with two previously established measures of personality traits. Other authors of the study were Richard Zweig, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Einstein and director of the Older Adult Program at Ferkauf, and Gil Atzmon, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine and of genetics at Einstein.

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Mental Illness and Marriage

I was interviewed on how mental illness affects marriage and how to cope. Listen to the podcast.

What kind of impact does mental illness have on a marriage?

In today’s society, it’s becoming more and more common for individuals to be living with some sort of mental health condition or illness like anxiety or depression. And while there are many issues and conditions that present themselves in different, unique ways, oftentimes the effects on a marriage are very similar.

In addition to anxiety and depression, some people suffer from more extreme conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse problems. When these issues creep in without the proper treatment, their impact on a marriage and the individual can be fundamentally problematic. In some situations, the partner without the condition will have to pick up the slack for the other. And in many cases, couples will begin to suffer from tension and exhaustion within their marriage.

Our guest today is Dr. Nerina Garcia, a clinical psychologist with Williamsburg Therapy and Wellness in Brooklyn, NY. Nerina is here to give us some advice about how couples and individuals can learn to cope with mental illnesses within marriages while building a network of support.

To find out more about Nerina and her practice, visit her website or call (917) 816-4449.

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Mental Health Issues to Be Aware of in Your 20s

I was quoted in this article regarding typical mental health issues for people in their 20s. I discuss the impact of stressful transitions and how to cope. by Rheyanne Weaver |

People in their 20s seem to have it all: youth, energy, health, and looks. But they are also still figuring themselves out, and this time of change can bring certain mental health concerns as well. Experts have information on these issues that tend to impact people in their 20s, and provide some solutions for addressing and coping with these problems.

Clinical psychologist Dean Haddock, a marriage, family, and child counselor and the executive director and founder of Community Counseling and Psychological Services, points to a fairly common activity of 20-somethings that can lead to mental health issues if it’s not checked: alcohol and drug use.

“The first problem that leads to many others is alcohol and chemical abuse, which often leads to dependency,” Haddock said in an email. “The mental disorders that follow are often depression, anxiety, and brain injury. Of course, self-esteem and body-image problems often lead to eating disorders.”

Haddock gives three tips to help people in their 20s prevent and get through some common mental health concerns:

  1. Know your genetic history of mental disorders. Knowing is half the battle to avoid those disorders in yourself.
  2. Be choosey about your friends, as they will influence your decisions. Healthy friends lead to healthier decisions.
  3. Self-esteem is often the result of the people who matter to you. If they do not esteem you, then you will not esteem yourself.

Nerina Garcia-Arcement, a clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor at NYU School of Medicine, suggests that the many life changes people experience in their 20s can cause mental health issues at times.

“Your 20s are filled with life transitions that can be stressful,” Garcia-Arcement said. “This is a time when young adults are solidifying their personalities, developing their independence from family, starting or finishing college, beginning new jobs, developing a career, forming romantic relationships, and learning to manage their existing family relationships and friendships within these context.”

“Individuals in their 20s don’t have a lifetime of experience to draw on when managing multiple life transitions at once,” she added. “When someone experiences these transitions, anxiety and depressive disorders can occur.”

Here are six of Garcia-Arcement’s tips to help people in their 20s cope with mental health issues more common to that age group:

  1. Seek out and form strong support networks.
  2. Seek out others who are going through similar experiences and share your feelings, whether you are feeling worried, nervous, scared, sad, confused, or excited.
  3. Know that you are not alone in your confusion about your career and relationships.
  4. Seek out mentors who have achieved their goals, and ask for advice.
  5. If you are feeling stress, sadness, or anxiety, engage in activities that will help you manage those feelings such as yoga, meditation, exercise, hobbies, social activities, relaxation exercises, and deep breathing.
  6. If you feel you are not getting the necessary support and feel overwhelmed or depressed, seek out mental health professionals who can help you manage the feelings related to your life transitions.

Stephanie Sarkis, a licensed mental health counselor, said in an email that anxiety and depression are some of the main mental health issues 20-somethings face.

“We have seen an increase in these issues due to the lagging economy and difficulties finding employment,” Sarkis said. “Many people in their 20s have moved back in with their parents, which can trigger feelings of failure and frustration.”

Dr. Maiysha Clairborne, a family physician and wellness and stress management coach, added in an email that eating disorders associated with body dysmorphic disorder and body-image issues are also common for people in their 20s. She has three overall tips for people in this age group:

  1. Talk to someone. The worst thing that a person can do when they are feeling depressed, anxious, or alone is to isolate more. Many times when we talk with someone we trust about what’s going on, we come to realize that we are not the only ones experiencing it and then we can get support.
  2. Get active. Staying physically active not only helps to keep the body fit but also helps release endorphins and serotonin in the brain, which help keep the mood elevated. Physical activity is also a good release for stress and anxiety.
  3. Minimize sugar and junk food. Sugar and processed junk foods can worsen the emotions of stress, anxiety, and depression because they cause erratic changes in your body’s blood sugars. This can disrupt the normal release of hormones in the brain that keep your moods stable.

Scott Carroll, a psychiatrist with dual board certifications in adult and child and adolescent psychiatry, said there are many issues specific to people in their 20s, including problems associated with medication use.

“Many people were on stimulants/meds for their ADHD when they were younger, but they thought it was okay to stop their meds when they were done with school,” Carroll said. “Now they are struggling at work and don’t know why. I’ve also seen young adults stop all kinds of meds like their thyroid meds because they didn’t know why they were even on it, and then they have all kinds of problems.”

Bad habits involving drug and alcohol use can start to become a major substance abuse issue when people are in their 20s, and other mental health issues start coming to the forefront at this time in peoples’ lives. Examples include bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Also, panic attacks can start for people who have a genetic predisposition and who have higher amounts of stress associated with newfound adulthood.

“The 20s are an important time of social/emotional development,” Carroll said. “Unlike previous generations, identity formation often takes the entire 20s due to the complexity of modern society. It could be said that adolescence lasts until the early 30s in today’s society due to [prolonged] periods of education (grad school, law school, med school, etc.), lack of stable job options, and delays in getting married and starting families.”

Carroll, who is also an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, suggests that when it comes to serious relationships and marriage, people in their 20s should consider how their choices could eventually affect their mental health and how their brain plays a part in their decision.

“Many 20-somethings are tempted to get married, but it is generally a bad idea because the brain in not done developing until about 25 [years old] … which leaves young adults vulnerable to having their rational mind be overwhelmed by their feelings or stress,” Carroll said. “Relationship choices often dramatically change from the early 20s to the late 20s, so many people find that the person that was perfect at 22 is a disaster at 27.  This can be an incredibly hard transition, to have to break up with your former soul mate that you thought you’d love for life because you’ve changed so much over the last several years.”

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