No one likes getting older. As we age, our bodies slow down and we experience a plethora of health issues, from changes in vision to decreasing muscle mass. These physical changes, along with the increased risk of developing dementia, make aging something that the vast majority of us would love to avoid.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do to stop old age from running its course. But what if we could just slow the effects of aging with a small, non-invasive procedure? Thanks to new research from a group of scientists at the University of Leeds, such wonderful effects just might be possible with a simple tickle of the ear.
The thought of getting your ear tickled might make you feel a bit odd, but new research shows that certain kinds of ear-tickling just might help seniors slow down the effects of aging. Using a technique called transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation, researchers were able to give patients a small, painless electrical current in the ear.
This electrical current can send signals through the vagus nerve to the nervous system, which can help recalibrate the body’s control system. By using the ear, scientists are able to gain access to the body’s important metabolic balance without any medication or invasive procedures.
In particular, these electrical pulses stimulate the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for many of the body’s natural reflexes, such as those for breathing, heart rate, and digestion. The autonomic nervous system is split up into two parts: the sympathetic branch, which is responsible for the body’s fight or flight response, and the parasympathetic branch, which operates the “rest and digest” systems in our body.
As we get older, the delicate balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of our nervous system weakens so that the sympathetic branch gets stronger. This makes us more susceptible to diseases as our body is constantly in a state of elevated stress.
Through daily electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve – the major nerve of the parasympathetic branch – researchers have been able to influence and rebalance the autonomous nervous system. The therapy, which feels like a “tickle” to many, led to increases in parasympathetic nervous system activity, thus restoring a youthful balance in the body.
For some of the study’s participants, transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation helped improve their mental health and sleeping patterns. The researchers believe that the stimulation will help restore healthy bodily functions, which could help people age in a more gradual manner. In fact, the study’s scientists believe that this treatment could even lower the need for medication and reduce one’s risk of developing heart disease and mental health issues.
While transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation is not really a “new” technique (a previous study had tested the procedure on healthy 30-year-olds), its full effects are still being researched. However, based on the success of this most recent study, scientists are hopeful that a daily tickle in the ear could help make a huge difference in people’s lives as they age.
Moving forward, the researchers hope to test the procedure on more patients in larger and longer studies to better understand the long-term health effects of the technique. Only time will tell, but based on the results of this study, we’re cautiously optimistic, to say the least.
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