Cognitive Training Helps Regain a Younger-working Brain

Relentless cognitive decline as we age is worrisome, and it is widely thought to be an unavoidable negative aspect of normal aging. Researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas, however, say their research could provide new hope for extending our brain function as we age.

In a randomized clinical study involving adults age 56 to 71 that recently published in Neurobiology of Aging, researchers found that after cognitive training, participants’ brains were more energy efficient, meaning their brain did not have to work as hard to perform a task.

Dr. Michael Motes, senior research scientist at the Center for BrainHealth and one of the lead authors of the study, said, “Finding a nonpharmacological intervention that can help the aging brain to perform like a younger brain is a welcome finding that potentially advances understanding of ways to enhance brain health and longevity. It is thrilling for me as a cognitive neuroscientist, who has previously studied age-related cognitive decline, to find that cognitive training has the potential to strengthen the aging brain to function more like a younger brain.”

To investigate changes in brain efficiency, the research team studied neural activity while the participant performed a task. For the study, 57 cognitively normal older adults were randomly assigned to a cognitive training group, a wait-listed control group, or physical exercise control group. The cognitive training utilized the Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART) program developed at the Center for BrainHealth.

Cognitive training strategies included how to focus on the most relevant information and filter out the less relevant; ways to continually synthesize information encountered in daily life to encourage deeper thinking; and how to inspire innovative thinking through generating diverse interpretations, solutions and perspectives. Because aerobic exercise has been shown to lead to improvements in processing speed and functional changes within the frontal and other brain regions, it was included as one of the study groups.

The cognitive training was conducted over the course of 12 weeks. Participants in the active control physical exercise program exceeded physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes per week for the 12 weeks.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), an imaging technique that measures brain activity, researchers examined all three groups at the beginning (baseline), middle, and end of the study while participants performed computer-based speed tasks in the scanner.

The fMRI results provided evidence that cognitive training improved speed-related neural activity. While all groups showed faster reaction times across sessions, the cognitive training group showed a significant increase in the association between reaction time and frontal lobe activity. After training, faster reaction times were associated with lower frontal lobe activity, which is consistent with the more energy-efficient neural activity found in younger adults.

In contrast to the cognitive training group, the wait-listed and physical exercise groups showed significant decreases across sessions in the association between reaction time and frontal lobe activation.

“This discovery of neural efficiency profiles found in the SMART-trained older adults is promising,” said Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, one of the lead authors, Center for BrainHealth founder and chief director. “If replicated, this work paves the way for larger clinical trials to test the ability to harness the potential of the aging mind and its ability to excel — by working like a younger brain with all the rich knowledge and expertise accrued over time. To counteract the pattern of age-related losses and even enhance the brain’s inner workings by ‘thinking’ in smarter ways is an achievable and highly desirable goal.”

Source: University of Texas at Dallas

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The Surprising Anti-Aging Benefits of Fiber

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Sally Wadyka wrote . . . . . .

Fiber gets a lot of well-deserved credit for keeping the digestive system in good working order—but it does plenty more. In fact, it’s a major player in so many of your body’s systems that getting enough can actually help keep you youthful. For example, older people who ate fiber-rich diets were 80 percent more likely to live longer and stay healthier than those who didn’t, according to a recent study in the Journals of Gerontology.

The trouble is, few Americans consume the amount they should. For people age 51 and older, government guidelines recommend at least 28 grams per day for men and 22 grams for women. But the Department of Agriculture says adults in this age group average just about 16 grams per day.

What Is Fiber Anyway?

Fiber is a carbohydrate found in plant foods: beans, fruit, grains, nuts, and vegetables. Technically, it isn’t a nutrient because it isn’t broken down and absorbed. But that’s what makes it so beneficial.

There are several types of fiber, but they all fall into two broad categories: soluble and insoluble.

Soluble fiber is soft and dissolves in water, forming a gel-like substance. It bulks up your stool, making it easier to pass. Sources include beans, oats, sweet potatoes, and the flesh of some fruit.

Insoluble fiber is found in whole grains, vegetables, and fruit skin. “This kind of fiber promotes contractions of the digestive tract that move food and waste through the body,” says Lindsay Malone, R.D., a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine.

Many plant foods contain both, so by eating a variety, you’ll cover all your bases.

How It Keeps You Young

The study mentioned earlier followed over 1,600 healthy adults for 10 years. Those who had “aged successfully” after a decade (meaning they were free of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, and had good overall cognitive, physical, and cardiovascular function) consumed an average of 29 grams of fiber per day. How is it that this simple substance can have such a powerful effect on health and longevity? It turns out there are many ways that fiber works its anti-aging magic.

Cutting cholesterol. Soluble fiber binds to bile acids, substances produced by the liver that aid in digestion and fat absorption, and it helps your body excrete them. “The body then needs to produce more bile acids, and it pulls cholesterol from the blood to do it,” says JoAnn E. Manson, M.D., chief of the division of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. A 2016 Cochrane Review of 23 studies found that increasing fiber led to a 7.7 mg/dL reduction in total cholesterol and a 5.4 mg/dL drop in LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.

Protecting against diabetes. A study published in 2009 in Diabetes Care found that people who got less than 20 grams of fiber per day had about a 50 percent greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who got 31 grams or more per day. “Eating a food that’s high in fiber slows the absorption of carbohydrates into your bloodstream,” Manson says, “so blood sugar levels rise more slowly and the pancreas has more time to react and produce insulin.”

Controlling weight. Fiber adds bulk, so you feel full faster and stay full longer. And many high-fiber foods are low in calories.

Lowering colorectal cancer risk. A recent report by the World Cancer Research Fund International/American Institute for Cancer Research found that eating 90 grams of fiber-rich whole grains daily could lower colorectal cancer risk by 17 percent.

Reducing inflammation. Chronic inflammation has been linked to many diseases, such as arthritis, certain cancers, and even Alzheimer’s. “Many studies have shown that increased insoluble fiber intake leads to reduced inflammation,” says Qi Sun, M.D., Sc.D., an assistant professor in the department of nutrition at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. This may be because other beneficial components of whole grains, such as polyphenols and magnesium, also have anti-inflammatory properties.

Protecting joints. If fiber can reduce inflammation, it stands to reason that it may help reduce the risk of arthritis. And a recent study, published in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, offers some proof. Researchers evaluated two groups of people and found that in one group, those whose daily fiber intake averaged 20 grams had a 30 percent lower risk of knee osteoarthritis than people who ate about 8 grams. In the other group, those who averaged about 25 grams of fiber per day had a 61 percent lower risk compared with those who consumed about 14 grams.

Boosting good bacteria in the gut. “Fiber doesn’t digest, it ferments,” Malone says. “By the time it reaches the colon, the fermented material supplies food to help those good bacteria multiply and thrive.” A healthy supply of good bacteria can have far-reaching health effects, such as strengthening the immune system and helping to control inflammation.

Natural or Not?

Beta glucan, cellulose, chicory root, inulin, pectin, psyllium, and xanthan gum are types of fiber that are added to some packaged foods. The Food and Drug Administration is reviewing of some of those ingredients to determine whether to allow manufacturers to continue to count them as part of a product’s total fiber content.

The question is whether there’s enough evidence to prove they have the same physiological benefits as natural fiber, says Joanne Slavin, Ph.D., a professor of food science at the University of Minnesota. “The advantage of adding fiber into foods and beverages is to increase fiber without increasing calories,” she says. But critics worry that this practice may make something that’s essentially junk food appear to be healthy because the label touts its fiber content. “Foods that are naturally high in fiber are some of the healthiest foods,” Manson says. “You’re not going to get the same health effects from eating highly processed foods with a sprinkling of added fiber.”

Tips for Boosting Fiber Intake

Getting fiber from foods naturally rich in it is your best bet. “Using a supplement as a replacement means missing out on all the other benefits of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains,” Manson says.

And getting more fiber doesn’t limit you to eating only prunes and wheat bran. Some top sources include avocados (9 grams in one medium fruit), green peas (9 grams per cup), raspberries (8 grams per cup), sweet potatoes (6 grams in one large potato), and pears (5.5 grams per medium fruit).

People often cite gas and bloating as reasons for not adding more fiber-rich foods to their diets. That concern is warranted. “You don’t want to go from 5 grams a day to 30 all at once,” Manson says. “There are enzymes that need to be cultivated so that the intestines are ready to handle the increased load.”

So up your fiber intake gradually, spread it across meals, and be sure to drink more water simultaneously. “Fiber in the presence of fluid adds bulk and softens stool,” Malone says. Without enough water, fiber can actually be constipating. It’s also worth experimenting with a variety of high-fiber foods to find which ones your digestive system tolerates best.

Source: Consumer Reports

Pessimism About Old Age May be A Risk Factor for Dementia

Karen Kaplan wrote . . . . . . .

Older adults with a negative outlook about old age were more likely to develop dementia, a new study finds.

People who are pessimistic about what life is like during old age may be helping to make their fears come true.

A new study finds that older Americans with negative beliefs about aging were significantly more likely to develop dementia than their peers who embraced their senior years with zeal.

The difference was hardly trivial: Study participants who had positive beliefs about aging were 44% less likely to develop dementia over the next four years than were their counterparts with negative beliefs.

Even after the researchers accounted for other risk factors for dementia — including smoking, diabetes and cardiovascular disease — they still found that the odds for the condition were lower among those with a positive attitude toward aging.

Also striking: The apparent benefits of positivity were even greater among the subgroup of adults whose genes put them at greater risk of dementia. In fact, the researchers said, a positive attitude toward aging could essentially erase the handicap associated with carrying a risky variant of the APOE gene.

The findings, published in the journal PLOS One, suggest that fighting negative stereotypes about aging could have broad benefits for public health.

A host of earlier research shows that attitudes about growing older may influence cognitive performance, most likely because they affect levels of stress. There’s even some evidence that the brains of people who are pessimistic are more likely to have the amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Stereotypes aren’t easy to overcome. But considering that there are no treatments that can cure dementia (or even do much to slow it down), researchers are eager to spot any risk factor that people can actually change.

For the new research, a team led by Becca Levy of the Yale School of Public Health used survey results from the Health and Retirement Study, which is conducted every other year by the University of Michigan Institute of Social Research.

Levy and her team focused on a cohort of 4,765 older Americans (their average age was 72) who answered five questions about their attitudes toward aging. For instance, participants were asked whether they were as happy now as they were when they were younger, whether they felt that things got better or worse with age, and whether they felt less useful as the years piled on.

The cognitive status of the study participants was assessed by a standard test conducted over the phone. Among other things, they were asked to count backward from 20, to name the president and vice president and to recall a list of 10 items. Only people who did not have dementia when they entered the study were included in the analysis. Participants retook the test every two years.

Finally, most of the study participants provided saliva samples that were sent off to the National Institutes of Health to see whether they had a version of the APOE gene that put them at increased risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease. Among those who were tested, 26% had an e4 variant of the gene, which makes the disease more likely.

In the four years after joining the study, 4.6% of the adults with negative beliefs about aging went on to develop dementia. So did 2.6% of the adults with positive beliefs.

Among those with an e4 variant of the APOE gene, 6.14% of adults with negative beliefs about aging developed dementia, compared with 2.7% of those with positive beliefs.

Both of the differences remained statistically significant after the researchers controlled for age, sex, educational history, initial cognitive performance, health conditions and other factors that influence dementia risk. In the entire group, having a positive attitude toward aging was associated with a 19% reduced risk of dementia; in the high-risk group, those with a positive attitude were 31% less likely to develop dementia.

“Age beliefs tend to be internalized early in life and then remain stable over the lifespan, without interventions,” Levy and her colleagues wrote. “Our finding could provide a rationale for a public-health campaign to combat the societal sources of negative age beliefs.”

Source : Los Angeles Times

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Why Are So Many Men in the U.S. Dying at 62?

Is the thought of looming retirement and availability of Social Security killing you? Two researchers say yes.

Maria D. Fitzpatrick of Cornell University and Timothy J. Moore of the University of Melbourne said they analyzed the mortality rates in the U.S. and noticed that many older Americans – but disproportionally men who retire at 62 – are affected by sudden increased rates of death.

“A lot happens in our early 60s. Some change jobs, scale back working hours or retire. Our health-care coverage may shift. We may have fewer financial resources, or we may begin collecting Social Security,” Fitzpatrick told The Wall Street Journal. “About one-third of Americans immediately claim Social Security at 62. Ten percent of men retire in the month they turn 62.”

The numbers, according to the study, show that there is a two percent increase in male mortality at age 62 in the country. “Over the 34 years we studied, there were an additional 400 to 800 deaths per year beyond what we expected, or an additional 13,000 to 27,000 excess male deaths within 12 months of turning 62,” the professor said.

The researcher blames the increased mortality on the retirement as retirees tend to withdraw from life and no longer see the point in engaging.

“Retirement could have positive long-run benefits for your health because you’re taking better care of yourself. Or it could be that, in the long run, retirement has a negative effect. You can think of how a retiree slowly withdraws from the world because he no longer has any reason to engage,” she told the WSJ.

After all, the retirement brings new risks into life: “If you don’t go to work, you have more hours of the day to be driving around,” the professor said.

“Medical literature suggests when older men are more sedentary, they’re more likely to be at risk for infection. When they lose their jobs, they increase their smoking rate, linked to the types of deaths we see such as COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] or respiratory illness.”

The bottom line, says Fitzpatrick, is that the retirement “may be bad for the health of men, particularly for men who retire at the relatively early age of 62.”

While she is not advising people against not retiring, especially if their health is poor, people should take precautions and commit to fairly active yet stress-free lifestyle.

“Stay healthy, see a physician, don’t just sit on the couch, but don’t overdo it either. Be careful about driving. Just be careful. It is a tricky time,” she said.

Source: Fox News

Low Blood Sodium Tied to Impaired Thinking in Older Men

Lower sodium levels in the blood are associated with mental impairment and decline in older men, a new study finds.

The findings may be of concern, especially because certain drugs often used by the elderly can lower blood sodium levels, experts said.

Still, “at this point I do not think we can change our management of persons that fall into this category,” said Dr. Maria DeVita, a nephrologist (kidney specialist) at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “Clearly more research is needed.”

DeVita was not involved in the new study, which was led by Kristen Nowak of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

The research included more than 5,400 healthy men, ages 65 and older, who were taking part in a major study of osteoporosis. Their health was followed for a median of just under five years.

According to Nowak’s team, 100 men developed a condition called hyponatremia, where sodium levels in the blood are below healthy levels.

Compared to men with sodium levels in the normal range, men with slight hyponatremia were 30 percent more likely to experience mental impairment at the start of the study, and 37 percent more likely to experience mental decline over time.

The researchers also found an association between high levels of sodium in the blood and mental decline over time.

The study was published in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

Speaking in a journal news release, Nowak noted that “slightly lower sodium levels in the blood are likely to be unnoticed in clinical practice.”

But she stressed that the findings are preliminary, and couldn’t prove a cause-and-effect link.

“Because both slightly lower [blood] sodium levels and mild changes in cognitive function are common occurrences with advancing age, future research on this topic is important — including determining whether correcting lower sodium levels affects cognitive function,” Nowak said.

Dr. Gisele Wolf-Klein directs geriatric education at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, N.Y. She called the new findings “intriguing,” but agreed that much more study is needed.

Wolf-Klein noted that it’s tough to offer a good “real world” comparison group to the men tracked in the study, since all were enrolled in an osteoporosis trial. And she said the study also failed to “provide us with other factors well-known to affect [the men’s] sodium level.”

But the relationship between blood sodium levels and brain function in the elderly is important, said Wolf-Klein, who had no role in the study.

“Frequent medications known to decrease blood sodium levels include diuretics and antidepressants, which are amongst the most common medications prescribed in older adults,” she said.

Source: HealthDay

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