Body, Mind & Spirit: The Mental Health Benefits of Virtual Reality, An Allergy Treatment Breakthrough and How to Stop “Languishing”


A new study from Stanford University suggests virtual reality can boost moods and foster social connections among residents of long-term care homes. Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

From “turning off” allergies to how virtual reality could help boost happiness and lower feelings of social isolation in seniors, catch the latest in wellness news that you need to know.


Allergy RX


It’s long been a mystery how our immune system remembers we are allergic to things like pollen, peanuts and shellfish, but researchers recently discovered a cell that could be the key to turning off reactions.

In a study published in February, researchers from the Danish pharmaceutical company ALK-Abello and McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., say the cell not only produces antibodies that trigger an allergic response, but also reminds the body it’s allergic. The team, co-led by Josh Koenig, an assistant professor in McMaster’s department of medicine, says it’s a type-2 polarized memory B cell that has never been described before. (B cells are immune cells that make antibodies, respond to infections and cause allergies.) 

The researchers, who have given the culprit the catchy name of MBC2, say its discovery suggests two potential therapies: eliminating MBC2s from the allergic person or changing the function of MBC2s so they don’t trigger a response when the person is exposed to the allergen.

“It’s something we think is doable,” says Koenig. “Allergies have a huge impact on people’s mental health. I don’t think everyone appreciates that.” Furthermore, “elderly people are at higher risk of food allergy due to their aging immune systems,” according to a 2017 U.S. study published in the journal Aging and Disease. 

While any treatment will require years of clinical trials before it can be commercially available, the McMaster researchers say it offers new hope to the roughly 30 per cent of Canadians who suffer from allergies. — Sharon Oosthoek


The Future is Here


Virtual reality (VR) shows promise for seniors’ mental health. A new study from Stanford University suggests virtual reality can boost moods and foster social connections among residents of long-term care homes. 

Virtual reality is a computerized, three-dimensional digital environment. Users are immersed in a scene while wearing a special headset; they literally feel they’re inside a different world.  

Stanford researchers recruited 245 older adults in nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the U.S. to try out a seven-minute VR experience. Participants could choose travel experiences, nature scenes or meditation.  

Nearly 80 per cent reported a more positive attitude after a session, and nearly 60 per cent said they felt less socially isolated. However, the older the participant, the less likely they were to rate the experience positively, says PhD candidate Ryan Moore, who helped lead the study. Moore suspects deteriorating sight and hearing could be one explanation. “That may pose implications for the design of VR software and hardware for older adults,” he says. “A one-size-fits-all approach may not be suitable.”  

Moore’s findings are echoed in a 2023 University of British Columbia review of 22 studies about using VR in seniors’ homes. And lead author Lillian Hung, Canada Research Chair in senior care, cautions it has to be easy for staff to set up.  “You need staff champions that have training, so they don’t feel like this is going to be a burden,” says Hung. “We all know about the shortage of staffing in long-term care homes and they may not have time to learn.”  — S.O.


Being Alive

There is a simple but telling insight in Corey Keyes’ new book, Languishing: How to Feel Alive Again in a World That Wears Us Down. “Naming something gives it power – and gives us power over it,” writes the sociologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. The pioneering researcher used the term languishing in 2002 to describe “a feeling of restless emptiness” that stops short of depression’s hallmark, feeling “hopelessly sad” –  and its corollary term, flourishing, when we feel connected to the world and purposeful. 

The COVID-19 pandemic, followed by the times we’re in, has been wearying. We may all be feeling emotionally flattened, and Keyes gets it – especially when we’re in vulnerable life phases like adolescence, early adulthood and old age.

“Many older adults are not only mourning the loss of loved ones, but also the loss of their former mobility and independence, beset by a variety of ailments and indignities,” he writes. 

To flourish, you need to create what he calls a virtuous cycle to increase stress resilience. His tips are: to hold emotions more loosely; to change the stories we tell ourselves; to be more accepting of others; and to form communities of care. According to Keyes, this will improve life satisfaction. “You feel good because you are functioning well.”  —Susan Grimbly

A version of this article appeared in the April/May 2024 issue with the headline ‘Body, Mind & Spirit,’ p. 30.