Even Moderate Drinking May Dull the Aging Brain

Amy Norton wrote . . . . . . .

People who drink at even moderate levels may see some of their mental skills slip faster as they age, a new study suggests.

The researchers found that those who regularly drank alcohol showed greater brain shrinkage than non-drinkers by old age. They also lost more of their language “fluency” — a measure of memory and thinking skills.

And, the effects were seen even among people who drank “moderately” — roughly four to seven drinks a week, the researchers found.

The findings do not prove that alcohol was to blame.

But experts said they add to evidence that moderate drinking is not as healthful as many like to believe.

“People should be skeptical of the idea that it’s actually healthy, and treat alcohol with respect,” said Tim Stockwell, director of the Center for Addictions Research at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, Canada.

Stockwell, who was not involved in this latest study, has done work examining a popular notion — that drinking, in moderation, is good for the heart.

Many studies have found that moderate drinkers tend to have lower heart disease rates than heavy drinkers and non-drinkers alike.

But, in his own research analyzing those studies, Stockwell and his colleagues have found critical flaws. For one, the definition of “non-drinker” often creates problems. In many studies, it includes former drinkers who likely quit for health reasons — whereas people who continued to drink as they aged were probably healthier to begin with.

And while the latest study cannot pin the blame on alcohol, it avoided some of the pitfalls of other research, Stockwell said.

“It measured the cumulative effects of alcohol across the lifespan, with six measures of drinking over 30 years,” he said. “This largely avoids the kinds of bias we highlight in our research.”

The findings were published June 6 in the BMJ. They’re based on 550 British adults who were 43 years old, on average, at the outset. Over the next 30 years, they reported on their health and lifestyle habits every five years or so. They also took standard tests of memory and other mental skills.

Toward the end of the study, they underwent MRI brain scans.

Overall, the study found, people who regularly drank showed more atrophy in a brain region called the hippocampus, versus those who’d consistently been occasional drinkers or abstainers.

Hippocampus size is linked to memory, explained lead researcher Dr. Anya Topiwala. Atrophy in that brain region, she said, is one of the early changes seen in Alzheimer’s disease.

“However, there can be other causes of hippocampal atrophy,” stressed Topiwala, a clinical lecturer in psychiatry at Oxford University, in England.

So these findings cannot actually show whether drinkers face any greater risk of dementia, she said.

Overall, the study found, moderate drinkers were more than three times as likely as abstainers to show abnormal levels of atrophy in the right hippocampus.

That included people who averaged 14 to 21 “units” of alcohol each week. That is roughly equivalent to four to six pints of beer, or five to seven glasses of wine, a week, according to Topiwala’s team.

Similarly, both moderate and heavier drinkers showed a faster decline in language fluency over 30 years — a 14 percent to 17 percent greater reduction, versus abstainers.

Language fluency was measured by a test that asks people to name as many words starting with a specific letter as they can in one minute.

There was no evidence, Topiwala said, that lighter amounts of drinking “protected” the brain, compared with abstinence.

On the other hand, the study found, people’s drinking habits were not tied to their performance on other tests of mental acuity, including short-term memory.

Topiwala said that was surprising, given the findings on hippocampus size.

One possibility, she said, is that the hippocampus may shrink before problems with short-term memory and other mental functions make themselves known.

Last year, the U.K. changed its guidelines on “safe” drinking limits, based on evidence tying moderate drinking to certain cancers. Now, the government advises men and women to drink no more than 14 units per week (five glasses of wine, for example).

U.S. guidelines remain more liberal. Women are advised to have no more than one “standard” drink a day, while men can have up to two a day.

A standard drink includes a 12-ounce beer, for example, or a 5-ounce glass of wine.

“We found harmful associations with multiple brain measures in those drinking at levels within U.S. guidelines,” Topiwala said.

“My personal view,” she added, “is that people should be less confident that drinking at the upper end of U.S. guidelines is ‘safe,’ and it would be prudent to reduce their intake.”

Source: HealthDay


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Healthy Arteries May be Possible with Aging

Having the blood vessels of a healthy 20-year-old into one’s 70s is possible but difficult in Western culture, according to new research in the American Heart Association’s journal Hypertension.

“For the most part, it’s not genetic factors that stiffen the body’s network of blood vessels during aging. Modifiable lifestyle factors – like those identified in the American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple 7 – are the leading culprits,” said study author Teemu J. Niiranen, M.D., research fellow at Boston University School of Medicine, Framingham Heart Study, Framingham, Massachusetts.

“Vascular aging is thought of as normal aging. As people get older, their arteries become stiffer and they develop high blood pressure. In fact, that’s what happens to most people beyond age 70. But it doesn’t have to happen,” Niiranen said.

Niiranen and colleagues studied 3,196 adults ages 50 and older from the Framingham Heart Study. They defined healthy vascular aging for people 50 years old or older as having both normal blood pressure and pulse-wave velocity near the level of healthy people age 30 or younger. Pulse-wave velocity is a measurement of stiffness in the blood vessels.

Researchers found that overall, 566 (17.7 percent) of the participants studied had healthy vascular aging. The group most likely to have healthy vascular aging was the youngest. More than 30 percent of those 50 to 59 years old in the sample met the standards for healthy vascular aging. Only 1 percent of those 70 and older had healthy vascular aging, and they were more likely to be women.

The most important factors of achieving healthy vascular function were staying lean, or having a low body mass index, and avoiding diabetes, according to Niiranen.

The other lifestyle measures, such as maintaining favorable cholesterol levels, also came into play, according to Niiranen. In fact, the researchers found that those who achieved six out of seven of the American Heart Association’s Life Simple 7 healthy heart goals were 10 times more likely to achieve healthy vascular aging than those who achieved zero to one of the measures.

The researchers also found that people with healthy vascular aging were at a 55 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease, according to Niiranen.

“Western culture that includes poor diets and sedentary lifestyles is a hurdle for maintaining healthy blood vessels. Age-associated high blood pressure, for example, is not common in indigenous hunter-gatherer populations,” according to Niiranen.

“Unfortunately, there is still no magic pill that helps achieve healthy vascular aging. Achieving Life’s Simple 7 increases the odds of keeping healthy blood vessels even into old age,” he said. “For the population’s health, healthy vascular aging should be considered a universal goal.”

Source: American Heart Association


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Funny Video: Age-Activated Attention Deficit Disorder

Watch video at You Tube (2:55 minutes) . . . . .

Cut Calories, Lengthen Life Span?

Limiting calorie intake may slow aging, a new study suggests.

Previous research has shown that calorie restrictions slow aging in worms, flies and mice, so Duke University researchers wanted to see if it could slow biological aging in people.

“Biological aging is the gradual and progressive deterioration of systems in the body that occurs with advancing chronological age,” said study author Daniel Belsky, an assistant professor of medicine at Duke, in Durham, N.C.

“If we can intervene to slow the rate of biological aging, it may be possible to prevent or at least delay onset for many age-related diseases and disabilities,” he explained in a university news release.

The researchers looked at 145 people who achieved a 12 percent reduction in calorie intake over two years and a control group of 75 people who did not restrict calories.

At the start of the study, the average biological age of participants in both groups was 37, and their chronological age was close to that at 38. Biological age was calculated by readings that included total cholesterol, blood pressure and hemoglobin levels.

During two years of follow-up, biological age increased an average of 0.11 years each 12 months in the calorie restriction group and an average of 0.71 years each 12 months in the control group. This was a statistically significant difference, according to the researchers.

“Ours is the first study to test if caloric restriction can slow measured biological aging in humans in a randomized setting,” Belsky said.

“Our findings suggest a template for developing and evaluating therapies designed to mimic the effects of caloric restriction to ultimately prevent chronic diseases,” he added.

The study was published online May 22 in the Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences.

Source: HealthDay


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Aerobic-plus-resistance Combo Workout May Suit Obese Seniors Best

Kathleen Doheny wrote . . . . . .

Older, obese adults need to shed weight, but dieting can worsen their frailty. A new study addresses this conundrum, suggesting seniors take up both aerobic and resistance exercise while slimming down.

Engaging in aerobic and resistance exercise while losing weight enabled study participants to maintain more muscle mass and bone density compared to folks who did just one type of exercise or none at all, the researchers found.

“The best way to improve functional status and reverse frailty in older adults with obesity is by means of diet and regular exercise using a combination of resistance and aerobic exercise training,” said study leader Dr. Dennis Villareal. He’s a professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

More than one-third of people age 65 and older in the United States are obese, according to the study authors. Obesity worsens the typical age-related decline in physical functioning and causes frailty, while weight loss can lead to harmful declines in muscle mass and bone density.

The researchers wanted to see what combination of exercise, along with dieting for weight loss, might be best. They randomly assigned 160 obese and sedentary adults, age 65 or older, to one of four groups: weight loss and aerobic training; weight loss and resistance training; or weight loss and a combination of both types of exercise. The fourth group served as controls and didn’t exercise or try to lose weight.

After six months, physical performance test scores increased by 21 percent in the combination exercise group, but just 14 percent among those who only did aerobic exercise or resistance exercise, Villareal’s team said.

The researchers also found that lean body mass and bone density declined less in the combination and resistance groups than in the aerobic group.

One strength of the study is its evaluation of several regimens, said Miriam Nelson, director of the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

Such research is critical, as ”the majority of [older] people are either overweight or obese,” said Nelson, who wasn’t involved in the study.

While many studies of obese or overweight older adults focus only on exercise and weight loss, “this is really looking at health,” she said.

“Health in aging is really [about] functioning,” Nelson said. Maintaining muscle strength and bone density is essential to remain mobile and functional, she pointed out.

“All these multiple factors are what dictate to a large extent somebody’s ability to be independent, healthy and to live life to its fullest as they age,” Nelson added.

At the outset of the study, participants were mildly to moderately frail, according to the authors.

The researchers assessed the seniors’ physical performance, muscle mass and bone health over the 26-week study.

The overall winners, the combination group, exercised three times a week, from 75 to 90 minutes each session.

Aerobic exercises included treadmill walking, stationary cyclingand stair climbing. Resistance training involved upper-body and lower-body exerciseson weight-lifting machines. All groups also did flexibility and balance exercises.

The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Source: HealthDay


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