UVA Health System Blog

Stories about the patients, staff and services of UVA

 

The Detective Work of Autoimmune Disease

On October 31, 2014 | At 8:25 am

Angela Crowley, MD, is up-front about it. Accurately diagnosing an autoimmune disease can be tricky.

UVA rheumatologist Angela Crowley finds autoimmune diseases fascinating.

UVA rheumatologist Angela Crowley, MD, finds autoimmune diseases fascinating.

“People on average see six doctors over a period of 4 years before they get a diagnosis.”

This is because, in general, autoimmune diseases tend to arrive unpredictably, disguised as other conditions, offering only confusing clues as to what they are.

Why Are Autoimmune Diseases So Mysterious?

One reason is that the list of what’s considered to be autoimmune is long and ranges from the very common to the extremely rare.

Did you know? The following are all autoimmune diseases:

  • Celiac disease
  • Diabetes type 1
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Psoriasis
  • Inflammatory bowel disease

While very different, all these disorders have one thing in common: They occur when a person’s immune system decides to attack healthy body cells. Instead of fighting infection with antibodies, the body produces autoantibodies. The body is essentially fighting itself.

Where and how this self-attack occurs determines the disease and its symptoms. But the occurrence of these symptoms is not simple, clear or predictable. Other situations make diagnosis problematic:

Asymptomatic or Delayed Symptoms. You can have osteoporosis, for example, and have no symptoms at all — only getting diagnosed after a bone fracture. Or with ankylosing spondylitis, the average diagnosis timeframe is 10 years — about how long it takes for the condition to be visible on an X-ray.

Common symptoms. Or you could have severe joint pain as a result of any number of autoimmune diseases, but lack any other symptoms to help doctors determine exactly which one you have. Vasculitis, for instance, is systemic, which means, along with causing inflammation of blood vessels, it can cause pain anywhere and everywhere in your body.

Co-Conditions. Your celiac disease or Grave’s disease could lead to or just show up with rheumatoid arthritis; having both means one condition can mask the other.

Misconceptions. You might be in pain and avoid seeing a doctor. “People ignore their pain, thinking they are too young to have arthritis, which isn’t true,” says Dr. Crowley. “It can happen to kids. Rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis are two different things.”

Mimics. Dozens of diseases can look like MS, for instance, from lupus to other neurological conditions. And it takes time to rule out.

Uniqueness. Lupus in one person can show up with a set of symptoms completely different than the ones that show up in another person. Doctors can’t rely on symptoms alone to determine the nature of the affecting disease.

Diagnosing Autoimmune Disease

Varied, numerous and inherently elusive, the diagnosis of autoimmune disease can be tough detective work.

But what might seem daunting to others is precisely why Crowley became a rheumatologist. “I find it to be fascinating. Everyone is different, so I’m surprised and challenged daily. It’s really rewarding to be able to identify a rare disease and to be finally able to give a patient an answer to symptoms and something that can help them. Or to find a rare presentation of a common disease.”

So how does one diagnose if you can’t count on symptoms entirely?

Myth vs. Fact: Celiac Disease

The proliferation of gluten-free options at restaurants and grocery stores might look like just another trend. But celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disease. And though sometimes treated as such, it is not an allergy one can grow out of or ignore. If a person with celiac disease ingests gluten, she can trigger a number of symptoms, not all stomach-related; over time, eating gluten can give rise to more autoimmune diseases.

Diagnostic tests include, but are not limited to:

  • Antinuclear antibody (ANA) test—the presence of autoantibodies does not automatically mean you have an autoimmune disease, but a high level can indicate lupus, scleroderma, juvenile arthritis, others
  • Comprehensive metabolic panel
  • Tests associated with inflammation and arthritis
  • Urinalysis

Rheumatoid arthritis I can usually diagnose in the first visit; it’s normally straightforward.” Which is good, since it’s very important to be diagnosed early. “The earlier we can treat it, the more likely it is that it will be easier to treat later on and you won’t need as much medication.”

Which is why Crowley is excited about the advances being made in the field.

The latest? “We have a new imaging technique, a new type of CT scan, to diagnose gout. We’ve never been able to do it with imaging before. I’ve had patients who didn’t know it was gout until we used this technique. To diagnose gout you have to look at joint fluid and see gout crystals, but there’s not always a big collection of joint fluid to examine. Or you can look at uric acid, but some people have high levels of uric acid and no gout. You might suspect, from the symptoms and the blood tests, that the person has rheumatoid arthritis. Which is a problem, as rheumatoid arthritis and gout require very different treatments.”

But with the dual-energy 3D CT scan, diagnosis is straightforward. “The gout crystals look green. Fun pictures,” adds Crowley.

Flares & Triggers: Autoimmune Disease

While an ultimate cause for autoimmune disease remains unknown, research has shown that:

  • People can have a genetic propensity for an autoimmune disease
  • A trigger can activate or turn on the gene
  • Suspected triggers include environmental, chemical, sunlight, stress, drugs and infection factors
  • These triggers can cause a disease to “flare” up
  • These disorders can appear at any and all ages, making it difficult to pinpoint exact causes

Another thing is clear to Crowley and others in the field. “In the last two decades, we’ve seen a significant increase in autoimmune diseases, and a lot of experts think it’s the environment.”

Specific research has shown that tobacco use can turn on these genes, and gum disease can turn on rheumatoid arthritis genes.

But as with most aspects of autoimmune disease, these are hints, not answers. “We suspect it’s not just one thing, not one sole cause.”

No Quick Fixes: Treatments and Hope

There are no known cures for autoimmune diseases. Rheumatologists look to medications, supplements and physical therapy for the relief of symptoms and suppression of the immune system.

Crowley says that’s no reason to lose hope. “There is a lot of good research going. We have a lot of great treatment options. One hot topic in research is trying to predict the right treatment for each person. We have to do trial and error to see what can put someone in remission, but with more knowledge about disease features and genetics, we can narrow down the options and go straight to the most appropriate medicine right away.”

Stress and Self-Care

Along with medication, Crowley advises her patients to practice good self-care. She knows living with an autoimmune disease can be stressful. “People break down into tears in my office at least once a day,” she says.

But stress can make symptoms worse. “People get flared up when stressed, so I tell people we can’t fix the situations, but we can control the response. Good sleep and exercise are things we can work on. Tai chi and yoga are good for the body and mind (and there’s free videos for these on YouTube),” and can help manage symptoms. She also checks patients’ vitamin D levels, which are important for bones and the immune system.

Open for Business: UVA Rheumatology on Pantops

You can visit Crowley at her office on Pantops, where there’s plenty of free parking and friendly staff. View clinic directions, hours, contact info.

And while there aren’t published studies showing that diet benefits autoimmune diseases, she does see that diets can affect individuals, some of whom find that removing gluten, dairy, meat, sugars, fats and artificial ingredients help.

Even without a cure, Crowley finds her work rewarding. “We can put someone in remission and take them from not being able to do much of anything to being able to return to work and play ball with their kids. I get to develop relationships with people. It’s a team approach between us and our patients.”

And because an autoimmune disease can affect various parts of the body, Crowley also teams up with doctors in other fields. She doesn’t just treat one thing, she says. “We treat the person as a whole.”

Do You Have an Autoimmune Disease?

It’s hard to know without the care of a specialist like Crowley. If you have inflammation, joint pain or other vague symptoms, see your primary care physician for a referral. You can even schedule an appointment with Crowley herself!

 
 

The Charlottesville Women’s Four Miler: More than Just Another Race

On September 12, 2014 | At 9:52 am

The words glared from my computer monitor, mocking me: “This week should be EASY. Your training for the Four Miler is complete.”

The 2014 Women's Four Miler, a breast cancer fundraiser in Charlottesville, VA

With my mom after the 2014 Charlottesville Women’s Four Miler

The well-intended advice from the UVA Runner’s Clinic, emailed two days before the Charlottesville Women’s Four Miler, was a painful reminder that I hadn’t exactly started my training — at least not the way I had envisioned it. My runs this summer were few and far between, and I had never actually reached the four-mile mark. I also hadn’t gotten up to the 10-minute miles I’d envisioned.

I’m close to at least two breast cancer survivors. One has battled various types of cancer 10 times. Cancer, in its many forms, has taken more of my loved ones than any other diseases combined. I wanted to run the Four Miler to raise money for breast cancer research at UVA, my employer. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care about how fast I ran the race.

I even shut out my own mom. We walked the Four Miler together two years ago. I told her we could both do the race, but she’d have to walk by herself.

Why We Really Run

I had knots in my stomach as I bid my mom farewell and joined a pace group of other runners expecting to do 10-minute miles. I re-tied my shoes twice and walked toward the starting line, a little sad as I looked at all the families running together: moms, daughters, sisters, aunts, some bearing the names of loved ones who had won or lost their breast cancer battles. But I focused more on my pace once we started running.

Mile One: Hey, this is pretty easy.

Mile Two: I’m not making the pace I wanted to. I need to pass more people. Hey, look, there’s my mom on the other side of the road!

Mile Three: Wow, this hill is hard.

Then I began seeing the Motivational Mile posters, which are along the last mile of the course and display the names of people affected by cancer. I recognized easily a dozen of the names. A few were acquaintances who I didn’t know were cancer survivors.

It was a much-needed reminder that yes, this race, like any other, is about fitness and personal goals. But the real reason we race is for the women who can’t. 3,500 women get up early to participate in the race because, together, they raised $370,000 for the UVA Breast Care Program last year. My mom and I are far from being top fundraisers, but in our own small way, we’ll be a part of that big dollar amount this year.

After I finished, I stood by the finish line and cheered for friends and colleagues as they finished, and finally, my mom, who finished her walk in almost exactly an hour. My time wasn’t the personal record I’d hoped for, but I didn’t really care anymore. I ran the four miles, longer than I’d ever ran before. More importantly, I was a small part of a big effort to win the battle against breast care.

Donate to the Cause

The Women’s Four Miler is accepting donations until September 22 and hopes to raise $400,000 for the Breast Care Program. So far, they’ve raised 70 percent of their goal. Help them get to $400,000.

 
 

Q&A: Robin Williams and What You Should Know About Depression and Suicide

On August 18, 2014 | At 10:35 am

The sudden death of actor Robin Williams has put mental illness and Parkinson’s disease in the spotlight. Kim Penberthy, PhD, works with patients who have severe depression and talks about the stigmas, myths and what you can do to help.

Kim Penberthy, PhD, answers FAQs about depression and bipolar disorder after the death of Robin Williams.

Kim Penberthy, PhD

Are there any common myths about depression and suicide you want to address?

I think that the biggest myth may be that depression and suicide are indicators of immorality and weakness in a person. Depression is an illness. People who suffer from mental illness may be drawn to suicide because they feel that they have no other option to deal with the pain and suffering of severe chronic depression.

Does depression always have a physical cause, such as a chemical imbalance?

Depression and bipolar do seem to run in families, and there does seem to be a genetic component to many mental illnesses. But even when you find a genetic component, it still only accounts for a very small percentage of the likelihood of developing the disorder.

We are all also impacted by environmental factors, which include your development history or the way you were raised, the culture in which you live, and your current environment. In my field, we assume it’s a combination of biological, psychological and social factors.

Not being Robin Williams’ doctor, it’s hard to say what happened. I will say he is part of a demographic that is increasingly attempting and completing suicide — white middle-aged men. It used to be the highest rates of suicide occurred in the elderly and teenagers, but that has changed recently and we don’t really know why. There might be something unique about the stress of being a white middle-aged male in our society at this time that is driving that rate to increase.

Men are more likely to commit suicide than women. The data indicate that for every women who kills herself, 3.6 men commit suicide. Men also use more lethal means, like hanging themselves or shooting themselves.

Robin Williams made us laugh, so it’s easy to assume he was a happy person. But people often make jokes to avoid discussing serious topics. Is there a link between this and depression?

Yes, some people use humor to avoid discussing, but it’s hard to make generalized statements about depressed people using humor to cope with or avoid dealing with their depression. For example, many of the severely depressed individuals that I treat are so lethargic and sad that they have no energy or interest in making jokes. They may be barely able get out of bed and get dressed, so they certainly don’t have the energy to make a joke.

I think it really depends on the severity of the depression that we’re talking about. But I think we also have to realize that actors are acting a lot of their lives. He was a very talented actor, and I don’t think any of us have a full understanding of his private life.

What are some of the treatments for depression and bipolar disorder?

There is a difference diagnostically between chronic and episodic depressive disorders. It sounds like from what I read that Robin Williams may have had a chronic illness, and these kind of persistent disorders respond best to treatments designed specifically for them.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and antidepressant medications and/or mood stabilizers are typically the most common and most effective treatment for depression and bipolar disorders and can be very effective in alleviating symptoms in these disorders.  We have found, however that chronic or persistent depression may require an augmented treatment approach.

Something called Cognitive Behavioral Analysis System of Psychotherapy or CBASP is the only proven effective psychotherapy treatment for chronic or persistent depression when combined with effective antidepressant medications. A challenge is that many of these very sophisticated treatments that take a lot of training to learn are not available to many people, and we need to change that.

Patients often need to be on medication and therapy, and some research does show that both are more effective combined than alone.

What can you do to help a friend or family member? How should you react if the person blows it off with a joke or seems to snap out of it?

Sometimes it really helps to let the person know they have people in their life who care about them, but often with persistently depressed individuals, they may not believe this or acknowledge it. If a loved one is suffering from depression or bipolar disorder and has not been seen for treatment, I would recommend talking with them in a supportive and loving way about getting treatment. I recommend you ask them, if they really feel like they don’t want to get treatment for themselves, could they do it for the people they love.

If someone is actively suicidal, you need to call 911.

Why is there a stigma around mental illness?

I really don’t know. That’s a really good question. I used to think it was because mental illness is not always physically visible in the person who has it  — it is more evident in our moods and thoughts — and it seems somehow different than other diseases and illnesses such as diabetes or cancer. Because of this, there may be a sense that we can control it and because of this we may think if a person is sad and cannot snap out of it they are weak or not trying. We equate it with our own emotions: ”I remember when I was sad that my cat died, and I got over it, so why can’t you get over this?”

If anything good comes out of it this tragic event, it may be an increased awareness that this could happen to anyone. Anyone can be depressed or bipolar, just like anyone can have diabetes or cancer. It’s got nothing to do with your morality or character. I hope additional conversations continue about implementation of early detection, assessment and effective treatments for depression, bipolar illness, and other mental disorders.

What are some of the warning signs of suicide?

The warning signs can be variable or non-existent. Obviously, people suffering from depression and bipolar disorder are at higher risk, and people who endorse wanting to kill themselves are at very high risk. Some people will let you know that they are feeling overwhelmed and thinking of killing themselves while others may go about discussing it in non-direct ways like saying, “I can’t go on like this.” Often, people may make plans for their death by suicide, such as giving items away or planning for their pets to be cared for.  So when you see someone preparing to not be there, when they’re not going on vacation or going on a trip, that can be a warning sign.

Additionally, anyone using drugs or alcohol, may be at increased risk for suicide due to the disinhibiting qualities of such substances.

Often increased hopelessness is associated with increased risk of suicidality.  It is thought that this may happen because the depressed individual does not see any possibility of change. The pain is too bad, the pain is too intense, and they don’t have any hope of change – they can see no other way out

When pain from the depression is intense and hope is low or nonexistent, that’s when depressed individuals may be at highest risk for suicide.

What about someone who has just experienced a tragedy like the death of a child? Is that person more likely to become suicidal?

My understanding is that this may not be a common factor in increasing the likelihood of suicide. Suicide is usually associated with a severe mental illness, something like bipolar disorder or depression, but certainly may be exacerbated by situations in the person’s environment.

How can you help a friend or family member who has lost someone to suicide?

Listening and being there for that person are going to be the most important things you can do. If you think they’re suffering so much that they need treatment, you may wish to gently suggest such. It may be an overwhelming, confusing time for a person who has lost a loved one to suicide and often the people who remain are experiencing a wide range of emotions. They may be angry, confused, they may be frustrated — deeply hurt and sad. That’s OK, don’t take it personally, just be there for them.

If you or a loved one is having symptoms of depression, start by talking to your primary care doctor. Don’t have a PCP? Find one and make an appointment online.

If you think someone may be suicidal, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.TALK (8255).

Filed under : Family Health and Safety,Healthy Living | By
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Vim & Vigor: Robin Roberts, Pancreatic Cancer and Healthy Hearts

On August 13, 2014 | At 9:07 am
UVA pediatric nurse Delores Schrock spends time volunteering abroad. Read about it in Vim & Vigor.

UVA pediatric nurse Delores Schrock spends time volunteering abroad. Read about it in Vim & Vigor.

In 2012, Good Morning America anchorwoman Robin Roberts was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a rare blood disease resulting from chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer. Though bone marrow donors are few, especially for African-American women, Roberts could count on her sister for the life-saving donation.

Roberts’ full story is featured in the Fall 2014 issue of UVA’s family health magazine, Vim & Vigor. Check it out for stories about:

  • Getting tested for pancreatic cancer and new breakthroughs in the field
  • 10 steps to a healthier heart
  • At-home strength training for older adults
  • Adrian Chance, one of the few people to survive two cardiac arrests

Read the online version here.

Live in Virginia? Sign up to receive Vim & Vigor in the mail for free.

 
 

Q&A: What’s The Deal with Soy? Take A Quiz!

On July 31, 2014 | At 9:46 am

Registered dietitian Carole Havrila, who works with cancer patients, and Brandy Patterson, MD, discuss the benefits of soy and debunk myths surrounding the controversial food.

Soy, like these edamame beans, can help decrease your heart disease risk and lower cholesterol.

Soy, like these edamame beans, can help decrease your heart disease risk and lower cholesterol.

Soy and Estrogen

Q: Many people are concerned about estrogen in soy, but is there really enough estrogen in soy for it to make a difference?
Havrila: Plant-based estrogen (or what is often referred to as estrogen), called isoflavone, isn’t actually estrogen. Isoflavones have a chemical structure that looks somewhat like estrogen, which explains their name “phytoestrogens.”

However, isoflavones are NOT the same as female estrogens and soy foods do not contain estrogen. In some studies, soy acts more like the medicine Tamoxifen, preventing estrogen from binding to cells and exerting harmful effects in women’s body.

Large research studies show no significant effect of eating whole soy foods in amounts typical to a traditional Asian diet (1-2 servings) on male hormones. Since isoflavones are not estrogen, they do not have feminizing effects in men.

Soy and Heart Disease

Q: Can soy help prevent cancer? Does it have any helpful or preventive traits?
Havrila: Studies seem to show that whole soy foods, and the intake of these foods may be associated with lower incidences of breast cancer. Whole soy foods are products that contain unprocessed soy, such as edamame and soy beans. Tofu, a common soy food, is not considered a whole food because it is slightly processed. Research studies show that diets that include whole soy foods tend to be associated with a decreased likelihood of breast cancer recurrence in those who have had the disease. In some men, soy food intake is associated with decreased risk of developing prostate cancer, but this is not seen in all men.

Q: Does soy help reduce your risk of heart disease?
Patterson: There is much controversy over the many potential health benefits of consuming soy. Furthermore, there have been differences in Eastern and Western health outcomes and consumption of the legume. Soybean consumption in Asia, typically around 100-200g per day, almost always involves a form of the legume that is whole-food-related. In sharp contrast, consumption of soy in the United States seldom involves a whole food form. This includes soy protein powders, soy cheese, and soy “meat” products, which often contain less nutritional benefit than less or unprocessed whole soy foods.

Reports on cardiovascular health have been mixed, with some studies showing larger impacts on lowering LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol and others showing minimal effects. In 2006, a study concluded that soy protein’s effects on LDL cholesterol and other cardiovascular disease risk factors was not significant, compared with other proteins. The study suggested that “a very large amount of soy protein, more than half the daily protein intake, may lower LDL cholesterol by a few percentage points when it replaces dairy protein or a mixture of animal proteins.”

With that in mind however, they also reported that “soy products such as tofu, soy butter, soy nuts, or some soy burgers should be beneficial to cardiovascular and overall health because of their high content of polyunsaturated fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals and low content of saturated fat. Using these and other soy foods to replace foods high in animal protein that contain saturated fat and cholesterol may confer benefits to cardiovascular health.”

Introducing Soy to Your Diet

Q: Sometimes people want to cut down on meat or fatty foods by introducing soy into their diets. What are some good ways to do this? Any recipes?
Patterson: According to Whole Foods Market, “genetically modified (GM) soybeans have reached 90 percent market penetration in the United States.” Therefore, they recommend you select organically grown soy products to avoid GMO. An easy way to introduce soy into the diet may be as simple as using soymilk, soy protein powder and fruit to make a wonderful smoothie. Simply tossing edamame beans into your salad is also an easy way to incorporate soy. Soy products such as soy hotdogs, which can be dressed up with chopped onions, mustard and ketchup, make it difficult to taste the difference between meat and soy. Tofu may replace chicken or meat in pad thai, tacos or stir-fry. Soy hotdogs, soy cheese, soymilk and edamame are some of my favorite products

Havrila provides her soy cheat sheet:
Shelled versus unshelled edamame: Most people don’t eat the pod, and it is hard to shell the edamame unless the pod is cooked, so I recommend cooking and then popping out the edamame to eat. Many places sell shelled edamame already cooked, which is an easy and convenient protein source to add to soups or salads or for a snack.

Additives: If you don’t want any, buy plain tofu and season it yourself or eat it plain. They do sell Asian, smoked and other flavors that make eating on a salad, or part of a stir fry, very easy.

Calcium: When tofu is bought fresh, it is usually in a water bath that has added calcium. If you are looking to increase the calcium intake of your diet, look at food labels for those with the most calcium per serving (look for a higher percentage on the Nutrition Facts section).

Fat: I look for lower fat versions of tofu, as these products usually contain fewer calories per serving. Silken, or soft, tofu is usually lower in calories than firm or extra firm tofu.

Patterson adds: There is recent evidence that consuming soy protein may lower systolic blood pressure and that it contains active antioxidants such as flavonoids and isoflavonoids. Another group of antioxidant phytonutrients called phenolic acids has also been recently investigated in soybeans. When we enjoy this antioxidant-rich legume, we also benefit from its phenolic acids.

Want to learn more about soy and vegetarian diets? Check out:

Filed under : Cancer,Healthy Living,Heart,Nutrition | By
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Who Lives Well? Understanding What Makes People Flourish

On July 14, 2014 | At 9:58 am

While some people thrive throughout their lifetimes, other struggle.

Peggy Kern, postdoctoral fellow at University of Pennsylvania

Peggy Kern, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, researches well-being.

Peggy Kern, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, wants to know why.

Her research seeks to answer fundamental questions she posed to UVA employees during a recent presentation.

“How can we understand who lives a healthier life than others?” she asks. “How can we help people live the best life they can within whatever circumstances they have?”

To answer those questions, it’s important to adopt a lifespan perspective, or in other words, understand “where a person’s been, where they are now and where they’re going,” Kern says.

Extraverted? Agreeable? Linking Personality and Health

Using the Terman Life Cycle Study, Kern looked at how five personality traits — extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and intellect — are linked to a person’s health and well-being over time.

The Terman study began in 1922 with 1,528 gifted children. It followed up with the participants in intervals of five to ten years throughout their lives, building a comprehensive collection of interviews and questionnaires about a wide array of topics.

Kern found elements of the participants’ personalities at age 30 predicted measures of wellbeing 45 years later at age 75.

For example, those high in extraversion and agreeableness at age 30 reported higher levels of social competence and subjective well-being at age 75.

Kern also found that conscientiousness predicted longer life, which prompted to her combine the results of 20 studies with more than 9,000 participants that measured both traits.

“It wasn’t always significant, but it was always protective,” she says. “Conscientiousness had a stronger effect than socioeconomic status or intelligence. It produced a two to four year difference in when people died.”

Kern also found other ways that personality influenced well-being in the Terman study participants:

  • People who were more successful in their careers tended to live longer, but conscientiousness made a difference: Unsuccessful but highly conscientious people also had a lower mortality risk.
  • Men who scored high in neuroticism were less active than men who scored lower, but neuroticism made no difference for women.

“Oftentimes we look at someone at a single point in time and try to tell them what to do,” Kern says. “But that doesn’t take into account who they are as a person and where they are in their life journey. Understanding that is important.”

By looking at personality, “we can start to tailor things in ways that are going to better fit with intervention and hopefully be more effective,” Kern says.

“When personality is ignored, interventions can be shortsighted, wasting precious time, energy, and resources,” she says.

Well-being: Lack of Disease or Something More?

At the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, Kern’s work is part of a shift in focus from traditional psychology’s mission to eradicate mental illness to positive psychology.

“In positive psychology, we’re saying neutral is not enough,” she says. “We want people to thrive. We focus on what’s going good in life and how we can start to build more of that.”

Kern’s latest work has focused on social and mental well-being, specifically “how we can use measures as a way to shift some of these perspectives,” she says.

The first step to improving well-being is to measure it, Kern says.

“We measure what we value and we value what we measure,” she says.

To that end, Kern worked with other well-being experts to develop a brief questionnaire to measure five areas of well-being — positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment.

They also developed a similar measure for adolescents.

“Using the measures, we can compare things, gain insight and provide a metric of change,” Kern says.

In recent studies, Kern measured well-being in the workplace and in general.

“Feeling engaged and positive relationships with coworkers were most important for job satisfaction,” she says. “For life satisfaction, a sense of meaning was much more important.”

Kern also recently partnered with linguists and computer scientists to look at “big data” from social media.

The studies revealed that the words people use correlate to personality traits, life satisfaction, and likelihood of disease.

Overall, Kern has an important goal for her research.

“We hope to figure out who lives well and help more people do that,” she says.

Get more information about Kern’s research.

Tips for Your Wisdom and Well-Being

Kern’s presentation was the first in the Wisdom and Well-being Speaker Series, sponsored jointly by the Center for Appreciative Practice, School of Nursing and Mindfulness Center.

“This series is intended to start a conversation across our health system about how we can become our very best selves together,” says Dorrie Fontaine, dean of the UVA School of Nursing. “We want wisdom and well-being to be a signature of the health system.”

Presentations are free and include lunch.

View additional dates and speakers in the series.

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Summer Severe Weather: 4 Things You Can Do To Prepare

On July 9, 2014 | At 8:03 am

With summer comes severe weather, so it doesn’t hurt to be prepared for storms, extreme heat and floods. It’s important to be able to recognize an impending hazard and know how to take action so you and your family can stay safe. Here are steps you can take for any emergency:Be as prepared as possible for storms, extreme heat and floods.

1. Make a Family Emergency Plan

Families aren’t always together during an emergency, so it’s important to plan ahead. Download the Family Communication Plan for Parents and Kids and fill it out together, so everyone knows what to do. This covers important information, like where to meet and how to contact each other during an emergency. Look into emergency preparedness plans at places where your family members spend the most time (school, work, sports events, etc). If no plans exist, volunteer to make one! Get started planning with these critical questions.

2. Build a Go-Kit (Emergency Bag)

A disaster go-kit contains any household items that you and your family could need in an emergency. Because there’s a chance you’ll have to survive on your own after an emergency, the kit should have food, water and other supplies to last you at least 72 hours.Your kit should also include supplies that don’t require electricity, gas or water, as these might be inaccessible during a disaster. Find out what you need in your emergency preparedness go-kit.

3. Download an App

FEMA offers an Apple iOS and Android app that contains:

  • Disaster safety tips
  • An interactive emergency kit list
  • Meeting location information
  • A map with open FEMA shelters

Ready Virginia also offers an emergency preparedness app, which provides you with information about local weather and public health alerts. The Ready Virginia app is similar to FEMA’s and offers maps of nearby American Red Cross shelters, hurricane evacuation routes and “This Day in Hazard History” trivia.

4. Listen to the Radio

Stay updated on severe weather by listening to the local radio. Remember to keep a battery-operated radio on hand in case you lose power in an emergency. If you have access, NOAA Weather Radio broadcasts warning and post-event information for all types of emergencies, including natural events, environmental accidents and public safety concerns.

 
 

Podcast Tuesday: Are You At Risk for Vascular Disease? [AUDIO]

On June 3, 2014 | At 9:35 am

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Vim & Vigor: Bradley Cooper, Pediatric Epilepsy & Lowering Stress

On June 2, 2014 | At 9:06 am

In 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” Bradley Cooper portrayed the role of a mental health patient diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Image of Jennifer Raymond, who lost her son to H1N1 flu.

Jennifer Raymond’s son died of H1N1 flu complications in 2009. Read Vim & Vigor to find out how she honors his memory.

Read about Cooper’s experiences and his journey from passive bystander to activist for those 5.7 million adult Americans currently suffering from bipolar disorder.

Cooper’s interview along with a Q&A about the disorder are featured in the Summer 2014 issue of UVA’s family health magazine, Vim & Vigor.  Check it out for stories about:

  • Ongoing therapy to reduce peanut allergies
  • Quick and easy stress-busting techniques
  • Common myths about sunscreen
  • Warning signs of concussions

Read the online version here.

Live in Virginia? Sign up to receive Vim & Vigor in the mail for free.

 
 

15 Fun Ways to Keep Kids Active This Summer [INFOGRAPHIC]

On May 29, 2014 | At 10:25 am

Angie Hasemann, a registered dietitian with the Children’s Fitness Clinic, contributed this post.

Although it’s easy to focus on reaching a certain number on the scale, our eating and activity habits tell us a much clearer picture of our health. Especially this summer, try to get your kids eating more colorful foods (fruits and veggies of course!) and make sure their primary drink is water. Keep them moving with ideas from our infographic below, and you’ll be sure to have a healthy kid who is making the most out of summer freedom.

Ways to Keep Your Kids Active Over the Summer infographic