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Walking For Brain Health

We know that regular exercise benefits fitness overall and heart health in particular, and now a new study from the University of Kansas suggests that even a little exercise can help improve some thinking skills that wane with age. Researchers recruited 101 healthy seniors 65 or older with no cognitive impairments and tested their aerobic capacity, memory and thinking. They then divided the volunteers into three groups to perform supervised brisk walking on a treadmill in a gym for 75, 150 or 225 minutes a week. Those in a fourth group served as controls and didn’t exercise. After 26 weeks, retesting showed improvements in fitness that varied depending on how much time the participants exercised, but it also showed positive trends in two aspects of cognition - the ability to control their attention and to create visual maps of spaces in their heads.  No differences in thinking were seen between improvements in those who exercised least and those who put in more time. The conclusion: just a little bit of exercise may be all you need to keep your wits about you as you age.

My take: These are interesting findings, but they don’t yet answer the pressing question of how much exercise – if any – can help delay mental decline in processes such as Alzheimer’s disease. Studies are in the works to determine whether physical activity can serves as an effective primary or secondary intervention, but we’re not likely to know the results for years. While keeping the mind healthy is a priority, the small amount of physical activity that proved beneficial for the brain in this study falls short of what you need for fitness and heart health. I recommend that seniors walk briskly for 45 minute a day. In the meantime, as this study suggests, sufficient exercise to boost heart health and general fitness may also help keep your thinking skills intact. 

Mediterranean Diet for Brain Health

We know that the Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease, and some research suggests that it lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s disease as well. Following this dietary strategy may also help keep your brain younger as you age. A recent study conducted by Columbia University in New York City shows that seniors who had no problems with thinking or memory and adhered to the Mediterranean diet were more likely to have larger total brain volume as well as more gray and white matter than those who didn’t always eat the Mediterranean way. The researchers also found that the more fish and less meat their study participants reported eating the more total gray matter their brain scans displayed. The researchers first looked at survey responses about eating habits from 674 seniors and then viewed MRI scans of their brains. All told, the investigators concluded that the difference in brain volume associated with a Mediterranean diet was equivalent to five years of aging – meaning that on the scans the brains of the seniors in the study who followed the Mediterranean diet looked five years younger than the brains of those who didn’t adhere to the diet. While the study didn’t prove cause and effect, it did show an association between the diet and larger brain volume.

My take: I've long been a proponent of the Mediterranean diet, a composite of the traditional cuisines of Spain, southern France, Italy, Greece, Crete and parts of the Middle East. This new study isn’t the first to associate the Mediterranean diet with better brain health. Earlier this year a study from Spain found that adding olive oil and nuts to a Mediterranean diet slowed declines in cognitive function among 447 healthy seniors who were participating in a larger, ongoing study of the Mediterranean diet. In addition, earlier observational studies have demonstrated better cognitive function and a lower-than-normal risk of dementia among people who follow the Mediterranean diet.


Mind Games: Giving Seniors a Beneficial Boost

Using positive subliminal messages can help cancel out some of the negative societal stereotypes of aging, and even improve physical functioning in seniors, according to a new study. Researchers at Yale University recruited 100 seniors (average age 81) from the New Haven, Conn., area and placed a group of them in front of computers screens that were flashing words like "spry" and "creative." The messages were shown at speeds too fast to read or grasp consciously, but slow enough that their meanings were perceived and stored in the minds of the study participants. Interaction with those positive words and phrases improved balance and other physical functions among the seniors involved, strengthened their positive outlook on age, and diminished negative stereotypes of age compared to study participants in a control group who didn't have exposure to the subliminal messages. The same research team had previously shown that negative stereotypes of age can weaken seniors' physical functioning, but this study was the first to show that positive subliminal messages can actually affect seniors' physical functioning with benefits that lasted for weeks.

How Alcohol Can Help Your Brain

If you're age 60 or older and still have your wits about you, having a cocktail or two may enhance your episodic memory - the ability to remember events, whether they're recent or happened years ago. An example of useful episodic memory is the ability to remember where you parked your car. A new study from researchers in Texas, Kentucky and Maryland found that moderate alcohol consumption is also associated with a larger hippocampus, the brain area considered critical for episodic memory. Data from surveys of 660 patients enrolled in the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort revealed the link through the review of the participants' alcohol consumption, demographics, neuropsychological evaluations, MRIs of their brains and whether or not they were genetically at risk for Alzheimer's disease. The researchers noted that results of earlier animal studies suggest that moderate alcohol consumption may promote generation of new nerve cells in the hippocampus. They added, however, that having five or more drinks on any single occasion would do your brain more harm than good.

Yoga for Your Mind

Doing hatha yoga appears to have sharpened the thinking skills of seniors taking part in an eight-week study. A total of 108 adults between the ages of 55 and 79 enrolled in the study. Half of them attended three yoga classes per week for the eight weeks, while the other half did stretching and toning exercises three days a week for the same eight week period. Afterward, the researchers reported that the seniors in the yoga group had improved in tests of information recall, mental flexibility and task switching, all “mental functions (that) are relevant to our everyday functioning,” said researcher Edward McAuley, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois. No such changes were seen in the seniors who performed the stretching and toning exercises instead of the yoga. Noting that hatha yoga requires focused effort, study leader Neha Gothe, then at the University of Illinois and now a professor at Wayne State University, suggested that the “focus on one’s body, mind and breath during yoga practice may have…(resulted) in an improved ability to sustain attention.”

Neha Gothe, Edward McAuley and Arthur Kramer, “The effects of an 8-week hatha yoga intervention on executive function in older adults,” The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences. doi: 10.1093/gerona/glu095

What Fish Can Do for Your Brain

Here’s a strategy that could help you keep your wits about you as you age: eat baked or broiled fish at least once a week. A study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that seniors who routinely ate baked or broiled fish had larger brain volumes in areas linked to memory and cognition. The researchers were surprised to find that the connection between a weekly dish of broiled or baked fish and bigger brains seemed to be related to lifestyle factors (of which diet is one part), and go beyond the fish providing omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to help stave off age-related brain changes. The 260 seniors who participated in the study were cognitively normal when they joined a larger study of heart health in people over 65 and they all remained cognitively normal when tested later in the heart study. For the brain study, all the participants underwent high resolution MRI scans, which revealed brain volume in the two key areas. Those who reported eating broiled or baked fish weekly were more likely to have a college education than other study participants. Eating fried fish, however, provided no evidence of these benefits for the brain.

Cyrus A. Raji and James T. Becker, et al “Regular Fish Consumption and Age-Related Brain Gray Matter Loss.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2014.05.037

Less Sleep, Faster Brain Aging

This troubling finding comes from a Singapore-based study showing that losing sleep with advancing age elicits changes in a region of the brain that is a marker for faster cognitive decline. The 66 Chinese seniors who participated had MRIs to measure their brain volume in conjunction with an evaluation of their cognitive function every two years. They also reported how many hours they typically slept. The researchers, from Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore, reported that study participants who slept fewer hours showed evidence of brain ventricle enlargement and declines in cognitive performance. This study was the first to look at the effect of sleep on brain ventricle enlargement, a known sign of cognitive decline. The investigators cited research elsewhere as showing that seven hours of sleep is associated with the best cognitive test scores in more than 150,000 adults, but noted that it is not yet known whether seven hours is optimum for overall physiology and long term brain health.

My take? This study adds a serious risk to the list of dangers posed by sleep deprivation throughout life. We know that lack of sleep increases the risk of accidents caused by fatigue and that not getting enough sleep is a risk factor for weight gain, perhaps by disrupting production of the appetite regulating hormones ghrelin and leptin. Sleep deprivation can also disrupt the body's regulation of blood sugar, which can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. And laboratory studies suggest that not getting adequate rest may also elevate levels of stress hormones, boost blood pressure, and increase inflammation - all changes that may lead or contribute to health concerns later in life. If you’re not getting enough sleep, the sooner you establish new habits, the better for the long-term health of your mind and body. Here are my recommendations for getting optimal sleep.

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June C. Lo et al, “Sleep Duration and Age-Related Changes in Brain Structure and Cognitive Performance.” SLEEP, 2014; DOI: 10.5665/sleep.3832

Too Cynical for Your Own Good?

Cynicism has been linked to heart disease and other health problems, and now research from Finland suggests that it may also be a risk factor for dementia. The research team tested 1,449 people with an average age of 71 for dementia, and also asked them to respond to a questionnaire that has proved reliable in determining levels of cynicism. The study participants were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as "I think most people would lie to get ahead," "It is safer to trust nobody," and "Most people will use somewhat unfair reasons to gain profit or an advantage rather than lose it." Based on their scores, participants were classified as possessing low, moderate or high levels of cynical distrust. After the investigators adjusted for other dementia risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking, they observed that of the 164 people with high levels of cynicism, 14 developed dementia. This rate was about double the incidence of dementia compared to nine of 212 people with low levels of cynicism. Eventually, these findings, if confirmed by further studies, may lead the way toward addressing attitude as part of preventive health care.

Anna-Maija Tolppanen et al “Late-life cynical distrust, risk of incident dementia, and mortality in a population-based cohort”, Neurology,

This is Your Brain on Laughter

Seriously, research suggests that a good laugh can boost memory, lower stress, protect against heart disease and even burn calories. The latest news on the health benefits of laughter comes from a small study at California’s Loma Linda University, where researchers investigated the effects of humor on 20 seniors. First, they tested short-term recall among all the participants and took saliva samples from them to measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol. They then showed comic videos to half the participants while the others were asked to sit silently elsewhere without talking, reading or using their cell phones. After 20 minutes, the researchers again tested short-term recall in all the participants and took new saliva samples. They found that recall among those who watched the videos increased by 43.6 percent compared to 20.3 percent in the other group and that cortisol levels in the video-watching group were significantly lower than they were in the others. The researchers noted that studies elsewhere have demonstrated that a sense of humor helps protect against heart disease and that 10 to 15 minutes of laughter daily burns up to 40 calories.

My take? Laughter is infectious. When we see or hear people laugh, we tend to laugh ourselves, which makes them laugh more, and so on. This means that a group of people laughing constitutes a powerful collection of internal and external feedback loops of positive emotion. If you want to be happy, put yourself in joyful situations as often as you can. Or consider laughter yoga. According to the official Laughter Yoga website, there are more than 6,000 "social laughter clubs" in 60 countries. Studies have shown that laughter can influence health by easing pain, reducing stress and even helping protect against heart disease. Researchers in Japan have shown that participating in laughter yoga can help lower blood pressure among adults ages 40 to 74, and are now investigating whether the positive changes are long-lasting.

G.S. Bains et al “The Effect of Humor on Short-term Memory in Older Adults: A New Component for Whole-Person Wellness,” Advances in Mind Body Medicine, Spring 2014, 28(2):16-24

Surprising Route to Creative Thinking

Need some new ideas? Take a hike. Seriously, new research from Stanford University shows that walking increases creative inspiration by about 60 percent compared to coming up with good ideas while sitting. You don’t even have to go outdoors. The research team found that walking on a treadmill is just as effective, creativity-wise. What’s more, returning to your desk (or couch) doesn’t immediately turn off the flow of inspiration stimulated by your walk, the Stanford study found. However, the researchers reported that there were some limits to the benefits of walking – for example, they found that while a stroll improved creative thinking, it didn’t necessarily help study participants (176 college students and other adults) come up with the right answers to questions aimed at provoking "focused thinking." Three of the other study experiments were designed to measure “divergent thinking.” Here, the students were given four minutes to come up with alternate uses for an object – their answers were considered novel (i.e. creative) when students came up with an answer no one else suggested.

My take? These are interesting findings. I’m an advocate for anything that gets people up and moving – if inspiration doesn’t strike, at least you’ll benefit from some exercise. I’ve also read that taking a short nap can help boost creativity in addition to bolstering emotional and procedural memory. Maybe a walk works – even if you’re on a treadmill – simply because it allows you to disengage from your usual surroundings. The Stanford researchers haven’t yet looked into the causal mechanisms that trigger creativity when you’re walking and may focus future research on whether other forms of physical activity have similar results.

Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz, “Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking”. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.