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Latest research: Why everyone should take vacation

Vacation Hammock Caroline

We Americans work hard. Weekends are more like workends. We sleep with our smartphones. And we think vacations are for wimps. So we don’t take them. Or take work along with us if we do.

But what if taking vacation not only made you healthier and happier, as a number of studies have shown, but everyone around you? And what if everybody took vacation at the same time? Would life be better, not just for you, but for the entire society?

Yes, argues Terry Hartig, an environmental psychologist at Uppsala University in Sweden. Yes, indeed.

When people go on a relaxing vacation, they tend to return happier and more relaxed. (The operative word here being relaxing, not frenzied whirlwind.) Traffic? A smile and nod instead of flipping the bird. An upset at the office? A deep breath and a focus, not on the drama, but on the task at hand.

And those mellow, good vibes, he said, spread “like a contagion” to everyone you come in contact with. “Even people you don’t know personally,” he said. Send everyone away on vacation at the same time, and that contagion takes off through the population like a viral happiness pandemic.

Hartig calls it “collective restoration.”

To test his theory, Hartig and his colleagues studied monthly anti-depressant prescriptions in Sweden between 1993 and 2005. In a recently published study, they found that the more people took vacations at the same time, the more prescriptions dropped exponentially. That was true for men and women, and for workers as well as retirees.

Summer, by far, was the happiest time – or at least saw the steepest declines in anti-depressant prescriptions. It’s no surprise why: Since 1977, Swedish law has mandated that every worker have five weeks of paid vacation every year. And workers can take four consecutive weeks off in the summer.
“It’s like there’s this national agreement that it’s vacation time, and work will be left aside,” Hartig said. So instead of working and being distracted and busy, people get outside. They do things they like and enjoy. They see friends, play with their children, visit their aging parents, or finally have time for that cup of tea with a friend who’s been blue.

The benefits, Hartig said, are huge. Not only is the society measurably happier, but workers are more rested and productive, relationships are closer and people are healthier. “Depression is a very costly disease,” he said. (Depression costs the U.S. economy an estimated $23 billion a year in lost productivity.)

Europeans, with their 20 and 30 days of paid vacation every year, live longer and spend less on health care than Americans, Hartig said.

But that kind of widespread, vacation-induced health and euphoria is unlikely to hit the United States anytime soon. “Collective restoration,” Hartig said, is only possible if the entire population can coordinate time off. And the only way to do that, he argues, is through national policy.

The US is the only advanced economy with no national vacation policy. (Unless you count Suriname, Nepal and Guyana.) One in four workers, typically in low-wage jobs, have no paid vacation at all. Those that do, get, on average, 10 to 14 days a year.

American workers don’t take all their vacation days, leaving, by some estimates, 577 million unused days on the table every year. And even when they do, many say they take work along with them. (All those unused days add up to $67 billion in lost travel spending and 1.2 million jobs, according to a recent report by Oxford Economics, an economic forecasting group.)
Kathy Simons was one of them. Even though she knew better. Simons directs the Work-Life Center at MIT. She knows almost better than anyone how taking a break from work not only improves your mood, but your health: One long-term study found that men who don’t take vacations are 30 percent more likely to have heart attacks than those who do. For women, it’s 50 percent. Women who fail to take vacation are more likely to suffer from depression.

But for five years, Simons didn’t take a vacation. She loves her work, had some big projects take off, and didn’t feel she could afford to be away from the office. “But I really got pretty exhausted,” she said. It took worried friends to finally push her to get away with her husband to Cape Cod for a few days. They rode bikes, turned off computers, spent time outside and, she said “got transported, and sort of awed by nature again.”

She came back to the office relaxed, while everyone around her looked stressed. So did her happiness wear off on them, as Hartig theorizes?

“I do think my good mood is contagious,” she said. “But honestly, re-entry is hard because you’re so out of sync with what’s going on around you. In so many work environments, co-workers don’t ask where you’re going on vacation. They only want to know when you’re coming back. It would be a heck of a lot easier to take vacation if we didn’t have to do it alone.”

Because while you’re being awed by a sunrise in a kayak, somewhere in the back of your mind, you know your co-workers are getting ready for a busy day, that stuff is piling up on your desk and you almost dread the emails flooding into your inbox.
The closest that Americans may come to collective restoration, Hartig said, is the quiet week between Christmas and New Years, when large swaths of the population leave the office behind.

William Howard Taft didn’t want Americans to have to go on vacation alone. In 1910, he proposed giving American workers two to three months of paid vacation every year. The naturalist John Muir said better than compulsory schooling, the U.S. should consider compulsory vacationing. In 1938, Congress proposed the 40-hour work week, a minimum wage and two weeks of paid vacation. In both instances, the vacation proposals died.

Now, perhaps with dollar signs, not collective restoration in mind, the travel and tourism industry has launched the Vacation Equality Project and, with slick ads and petition drives, is pushing Congress for a guaranteed minimum amount of paid vacation.

John de Graaf, executive director of the Take Back Your Time organization who has been working on the campaign, said it’s a tough sell in the United States, where vacation is seen as an “extraneous luxury” of little benefit to anyone.

“People don’t experience very much vacation in the United States, so they’re inclined not to understand its value,” he said. “In fact, people are in so much debt that, if given the choice of time or money, people will choose money, which is why they unions tell me they won’t fight for time off.”

DeGraaf just finished work on a video for public television that noted that 20 years ago, 80 percent of the families visiting Yosemite National Park stayed overnight. Today, the average visit, usually in the car, frantically snapping pictures out the window, is five hours. Likewise, the U.S. Travel Association notes that family vacations in 1975 typically lasted one week. In 2010, it was 3.8 days.

Wash Capitol
The one place in America that comes the closest to Hartig’s dream of collective restoration, with everyone taking off at the same time, is, ironically enough, Washington, DC.

President Obama is heading off for 15 days with his family on Martha’s Vineyard. Members of Congress will scatter for August recess, as will many of the staffers who serve them and the lobbyists who buttonhole them. Washington DC will become a veritable ghost town. (In August, there is no traffic!)

So, come September, will our nation’s leaders be basking in the glow of collective restoration? Will calmer, more relaxed Republicans drop their lawsuit against Obama? Will lawmakers’ good moods mean progress on a host of unfinished business?

Or, is that just too much to expect from a few weeks off, even at the same time, when mid-term elections are just around the corner?

Source: Associated Press


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Bacteria Implicated in Stress-Related Heart Attacks

Stress has long been thought to trigger heart attacks, but the mechanism is unknown. Now, researchers think that bacteria could play a role. A study published today in suggests that stress hormones can break up mats of bacteria growing on the fatty plaques in arteries, releasing the plaques and causing strokes or heart attacks.

Researchers have suspected for years that bacteria infect the plaques of hardened arteries. The plaques form a surface on which bacteria can attach and grow in masses called biofilms, held together in a scaffold. To test this, a team led by bacteriologist David Davies of Binghamton University in New York analyzed arteries from 15 patients with cardiovascular disease. Using fluorescent tags that mark bacterial DNA, they discovered at least 10 species of bacteria clustered tightly around the plaques, including the biofilm-forming Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

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If these biofilms are tightly attached to plaques, they may have an effect on cardiovascular disease, Davies says. Plaques in blood vessels are normally stable, but if they break up and enter the bloodstream, they can trigger blood clots that lead to heart attacks or strokes.

To test this idea, the researchers grew P. aeruginosa in artificial arteries made of silicone tubing and waited for the bacteria to form biofilms. They then flooded the tubes with the stress hormone noradrenaline, which caused the biofilms to break up.

The authors say that stress hormones in the blood trigger the body’s cells to release iron into the bloodstream. The iron causes bacteria such as P. aeruginosa to produce enzymes that sever the polymer bonds that hold the bacteria together in the biofilm matrix and attach the bacteria to the plaque. The plaque is broken up as collateral damage, Davies says. Although he says that much more research in animals and humans is needed, the work “introduces a completely unexpected potential culprit” in the mystery of how plaques trigger heart attacks, he adds.

“It’s quite an intriguing hypothesis,” says microbiologist Primrose Freestone of the University of Leicester, UK. But she adds that the amount of noradrenaline that the authors used in the experiment is much higher than would be present in a human body.

Still, Freestone says, it is possible that noradrenaline levels are somewhat higher at the site of the plaque. And she says that the project could serve as a “springboard” for researchers to think more about the role of bacteria in cardiovascular disease.

Emil Kozarov, a microbiologist at Columbia University in New York, agrees that the idea is interesting. But he says that he would like to see whether noradrenaline breaks up plaques in mice injected with the biofilm bacteria, and whether noradrenaline disperses biofilms formed by other bacterial species.

Davies says that he plans to model the process in mice. He and his team are also planning to determine whether the arteries of healthy people contain biofilm-forming bacteria.

Source: Scientific American


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Daylight Savings Time Linked to Heart Attacks

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Switching over to daylight saving time, and losing one hour of sleep, raised the risk of having a heart attack the following Monday by 25 percent, compared to other Mondays during the year, according to a new U.S. study released on Saturday.

By contrast, heart attack risk fell 21 percent later in the year, on the Tuesday after the clock was returned to standard time, and people got an extra hour’s sleep.

The not-so-subtle impact of moving the clock forward and backward was seen in a comparison of hospital admissions from a database of non-federal Michigan hospitals. It examined admissions before the start of daylight saving time and the Monday immediately after, for four consecutive years.

In general, heart attacks historically occur most often on Monday mornings, maybe due to the stress of starting a new work week and inherent changes in our sleep-wake cycle, said Dr. Amneet Sandhu, a cardiology fellow at the University of Colorado in Denver who led the study.

“With daylight saving time, all of this is compounded by one less hour of sleep,” said Sandhu, who presented his findings at the annual scientific sessions of the American College of Cardiology in Washington.

A link between lack of sleep and heart attacks has been seen in previous studies. But Sandhu said experts still don’t have a clear understanding of why people are so sensitive to sleep-wake cycles.

“Our study suggests that sudden, even small changes in sleep could have detrimental effects,” he said.

Sandhu examined about 42,000 hospital admissions in Michigan, and found that an average of 32 patients had heart attacks on any given Monday. But on the Monday immediately after springing the clock forward, there were an average of eight additional heart attacks, he said.

The overall number of heart attacks for the full week after daylight saving time didn’t change, just the number on that first Monday. The number then dropped off the other days of the week.

People who are already vulnerable to heart disease may be at greater risk right after sudden time changes, said Sandhu, who added that hospital staffing should perhaps be increased on the Monday after clocks are set forward.

“If we can identify days when there may be surges in heart attacks, we can be ready to better care for our patients,” he said.

The clock typically moves ahead in the spring, so that evenings have more daylight and mornings have less, and returns to standard time in the fall. Daylight saving time was widely adopted during World War I to save energy, but some critics have questioned whether it really does so and whether it is still needed.

Researchers cited limitations to the study, noting it was restricted to one state and heart attacks that required artery-opening procedures, such as stents. The study therefore excluded patients who died prior to hospital admission or intervention.

Source: Reuters


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Angry People ‘Risking Heart Attacks’

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Having a hot temper may increase your risk of having a heart attack or stroke, according to researchers. Rage often precedes an attack and may be the trigger, say the US researchers who trawled medical literature.

They identified a dangerous period of about two hours following an outburst when people were at heightened risk. But they say more work is needed to understand the link and find out if  stress-busting strategies could avoid such complications. People who have existing risk factors, such as a history of heart disease, are particularly susceptible, they told the European Heart Journal.

In the two hours immediately after an angry outburst, risk of a heart attack  increased nearly five-fold and risk of stroke increased more than three-fold,  the data from nine studies and involving thousands of people suggests.

The Harvard School of Public Health researchers say, at a population level, the  risk with a single outburst of anger is relatively low – one extra heart attack  per 10,000 people per year could be expected among people with low  cardiovascular risk who were angry only once a month, increasing to an extra  four per 10,000 people with a high cardiovascular risk.

But the risk is cumulative, meaning temper-prone individuals will be at higher  risk still. Five episodes of anger a day would result in around 158 extra heart attacks per  10,000 people with a low cardiovascular risk per year, increasing to about 657  extra heart attacks per 10,000 among those with a high cardiovascular risk, Dr  Elizabeth Mostofsky and colleagues calculate.

Dr Mostofsky said: “Although the risk of experiencing an acute cardiovascular event with any single outburst of anger is relatively low, the risk can accumulate for people with frequent episodes of anger.”

It’s unclear why anger might be dangerous – the researchers point out that their results do not necessarily indicate that anger causes heart and circulatory problems. Experts know that chronic stress can contribute to heart disease, partly because it can raise blood pressure but also because people may deal with stress in unhealthy ways – by smoking or drinking too much alcohol, for example. The researchers say it is worth testing what protection stress-busting strategies, such as yoga, might offer.

Doireann Maddock, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: “It’s not clear what causes this effect. It may be linked to the physiological changes that anger causes to our bodies, but more research is needed to explore the biology behind this. “The way you cope with anger and stress is also important. Learning how to relax can help you move on from high-pressure situations. Many people find that physical activity can help to let off steam after a stressful day. If you think you are experiencing harmful levels of stress or frequent anger outbursts talk to your GP.”

Source: BBC