Alzheimers prevention

Moderate to intense exercise may protect the brain in old age

August, 2011

Moderate but not light exercise was found to help protect the brain from brain infarcts in some older adults, but not all.

Another study showing the value of exercise for preserving your mental faculties in old age. This time it has to do with the development of small brain lesions or infarcts called "silent strokes." Don’t let the words “small” and “silent” fool you — these lesions have been linked to memory problems and even dementia, as well as stroke, an increased risk of falls and impaired mobility.

The study involved 1,238 people taken from the Northern Manhattan Study, a long-running study looking at stroke and vascular problems in a diverse community. Their brains were scanned some six years after completing an exercise questionnaire, when they were an average of 70 years old. The scans found that 16% of the participants had these small brain lesions.

Those who had reported engaging in moderate to intense exercise were 40% less likely to have these infarcts compared to people who did no regular exercise. Depressingly, there was no significant difference between those who engaged in light exercise and those who didn’t exercise (which is not to say that light exercise doesn’t help in other regards! a number of studies have pointed to the value of regular brisk walking for fighting cognitive decline). This is consistent with earlier findings that only the higher levels of activity consistently protect against stroke.

The results remained the same after other vascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking, were accounted for. Of the participants, 43% reported no regular exercise; 36% engaged in regular light exercise (e.g., golf, walking, bowling or dancing); 21% engaged in regular moderate to intense exercise (e.g., hiking, tennis, swimming, biking, jogging or racquetball).

However, there was no association with white matter lesions, which have also been associated with an increased risk of stroke and dementia.

Moreover, this effect was not seen among those with Medicaid or no health insurance, suggesting that lower socioeconomic status (or perhaps poorer access to health care) is associated with negative factors that counteract the benefits of exercise. Previous research has found that lower SES is associated with higher cardiovascular disease regardless of access to care.

Of the participants, 65% were Hispanic, 17% non-Hispanic black, and 15% non-Hispanic white. Over half (53%) had less than high school education, and 47% were on Medicaid or had no health insurance.

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Brain starts shrinking long before Alzheimer's appears

June, 2011

A study following older adults for more than a decade has found that neural volume in specific brain regions markedly predicted later development of Alzheimer’s.

A long-term study of older adults with similar levels of education has found that those with the thinnest cerebral cortex in specific brain regions were the most likely to develop dementia. Among those in whom these signature brain areas were the thinnest at the beginning of the study, 55% developed dementia over the next decade, compared with 20% of those with average cortical thickness and none of those in whom cortical thickness was above average. Those with the thinnest cortical areas also developed Alzheimer's significantly faster.

The study involved two independent samples. In the first group, 33 people were followed for an average of 11 years, during which time eight developed Alzheimer's. In the second group, 32 people were followed for an average of seven years, and seven of them developed the disease. (So 23% developed Alzheimer’s in total.) Participants were divided into three groups based on cortical thickness in the key areas: 11 had the lowest levels, 9 had the highest, and 45 were average.

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High iron, copper levels block neuron repair

June, 2011

New findings help explain why too much copper and iron are bad for your brain, and why curry is good for it.

A new study finds out why curcumin might help protect against dementia, and links two factors associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases: DNA damage by reactive oxygen species (ROS), and excessive levels of copper and iron in parts of the brain. It turns out that high levels of copper or iron help generate large numbers of ROS and interfere with DNA repair.

While small amounts of iron and copper are vital, these are normally bound by proteins. However, when there’s too much, it can overwhelm the proteins and the result is "free" iron or copper ions circulating in the blood, able to initiate chemical reactions that produce reactive oxygen species. Moreover, the free copper and iron also interferes with the activity of two enzymes that repair DNA, NEIL1 and NEIL2.

However, the curry spice curcumin binds to iron and copper and was extremely effective in protecting the NEIL enzymes from the metals.

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Hegde, M.L., Hegde, P.M. , Rao, K.S.J. & Mitra, S. 2011. Oxidative Genome Damage and Its Repair in Neurodegenerative Diseases: Function of Transition Metals as a Double-Edged Sword. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease , 25 (1), 183-198.

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More evidence moderate alcohol consumption helps stave off dementia

April, 2011

More evidence that a moderate amount of alcohol helps protect against Alzheimer’s —but not vascular dementia or age-related cognitive decline.

A review of 23 longitudinal studies of older adults (65+) has found that small amounts of alcohol were associated with lower incidence rates of overall dementia and Alzheimer dementia, but not of vascular dementia or age-related cognitive decline. A three-year German study involving 3,327 adults aged 75+ extends the evidence to the older-old.

The study found alcohol consumption was significantly associated with 3 other factors that helped protect against dementia: better education, not living alone, and absence of depression. Nevertheless, the lower risk remained after accounting for these factors.

The ‘magic’ amount of alcohol was between 20-29g, roughly 2-3 drinks a day. As in other studies, a U-shaped effect was found, with higher risk found among both those who consumed less than this amount of alcohol, and those who consumed more.

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Walking counteracts brain atrophy in older adults

February, 2011

Walking 40 minutes a day three days a week prevented ‘normal’ atrophy in the brains of older adults.

Another study has come out proclaiming the cognitive benefits of walking for older adults. Previously sedentary adults aged 55-80 who walked around a track for 40 minutes on three days a week for a year increased the size of their hippocampus, as well as their level of BDNF. Those assigned to a stretching routine showed no such growth. There were 120 participants in the study.

The growth of around 2% contrasts with the average loss of 1.4% hippocampal tissue in the stretching group — an amount of atrophy considered “normal” with age. Although both groups improved their performance on a computerized spatial memory test, the walkers improved more.

The findings are consistent with a number of animal studies showing aerobic exercise increases neurogenesis and BDNF in the hippocampus, and human studies pointing to a lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia in those who walk regularly.

Reference: 

[2097] Erickson, K. I., Voss M. W., Prakash R S., Basak C., Szabo A., Chaddock L., et al.
(Submitted).  Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Importance of exercise for Alzheimer's gene carriers

January, 2011

A small study suggests that physical activity may be of greater benefit to those carrying the Alzheimer’s gene in protecting against cognitive decline.

A study involving 68 healthy older adults (65-85) has compared brain activity among four groups, determined whether or not they carry the Alzheimer’s gene ApoE4 and whether their physical activity is reported to be high or low. The participants performed a task involving the discrimination of famous people, which engages 15 different functional regions of the brain. Among those carrying the gene, those with higher physical activity showed greater activation in many regions than those who were sedentary. Moreover, physically active people with the gene had greater brain activity than physically active people without the gene.

And adding to the evidence supporting the potential for exercise to lower the risk of dementia, another recent study has found that after ten years exercise (in terms of the number of different types of exercises performed and number of exercise sessions lasting at least 20 minutes) was inversely associated with the onset of cognitive impairment. The study used data from the National Long Term Care Survey.

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Beet juice promotes brain health in older adults

December, 2010

A small study suggests beet juice may improve blood flow in important regions of the brain in older adults.

Following on from previous studies showing that drinking beet juice can lower blood pressure, a study involving 14 older adults (average age 75) has found that after two days of eating a high-nitrate breakfast, which included 16 ounces of beet juice, blood flow to the white matter of the frontal lobes (especially between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex) had increased. This area is critical for executive functioning.

Poor blood flow in the brain is thought to be a factor in age-related cognitive decline and dementia.

High concentrations of nitrates are found in beets, as well as in celery, cabbage and other leafy green vegetables like spinach and some lettuce. When you eat high-nitrate foods, good bacteria in the mouth turn nitrate into nitrite. Research has found that nitrites can help open up the blood vessels in the body, increasing blood flow and oxygen specifically to places that are lacking oxygen.

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DHA improves memory in older adults with cognitive impairment

December, 2010

A largish clinical study of cognitively impaired older adults has found six months of DHA supplements improved visual and verbal learning, though not working memory.

There have been mixed findings about the benefits of DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid), but in a study involving 485 older adults (55+) with age-related cognitive impairment, those randomly assigned to take DHA for six months improved the score on a visuospatial learning and episodic memory test. Higher levels of DHA in the blood correlated with better scores on the paired associate learning task. DHA supplementation was also associated with better verbal recognition, but not better working memory or executive function.

Other research has found no benefit from DHA to those already with Alzheimer’s, although those with Alzheimer’s tend to have lower levels of DHA in the blood. These findings reinforce the idea that the benefit of many proactive lifestyle strategies, such as diet and exercise, may depend mainly on their use before systems deteriorate.

The daily dose of algal DHA was 900 mg. The study took place at 19 clinical sites in the U.S., and those involved had an MMSE score greater than 26.

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Vitamin B12 may reduce risk of Alzheimer's disease

November, 2010

A long-running study adds to the evidence that high levels of homocysteine increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, and higher levels of vitamin B12 help to bring down these levels and reduce risk.

A seven-year study involving 271 Finns aged 65-79 has revealed that increases in the level of homocysteine in the blood were associated with increasing risk of developing Alzheimer’s (each micromolar increase in the concentration of homocysteine increased the risk of Alzheimer's by 16%), while increases in the level of vitamin B12 decreased the risk (each picomolar increase in concentration of B12 reduced risk by 2%). A larger study is needed to confirm this. 17 people (6%) developed Alzheimer’s over the course of the study.

Still, these results are consistent with a number of other studies showing greater risk with higher homocysteine and lower B12. High levels of vitamin B12 are known to lower homocysteine. However, studies directly assessing the effects of B12 supplements have had mixed results. Low levels of B12 are common in the elderly.

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Walk for your brain’s sake

November, 2010

Walking helps older adults fight brain shrinkage, which is in turn associated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.

A long-running study involving 299 older adults (average age 78) has found that those who walked at least 72 blocks during a week of recorded activity (around six to nine miles) had greater gray matter volume nine years later. Gray matter does shrink as we get older, so this is not about growth so much as counteracting decline. Walking more than 72 blocks didn’t appear to confer any additional benefit (in terms of gray matter volume). Moreover, when assessed four years after that, those who had shown this increased brain size were only half as likely to have developed dementia (40% of the participants had developed dementia by this point).

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