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This actually may seem obvious to many: that older people cope better in terms of loneliness and depression after a spouse's death or divorce if they have at least 1 pet cat or dog (versus no pets), but it's good to read that an actual study supported this. Other studies support that in general, a companion animal is beneficial for psychological health

The researchers called the pet a "companion animal" and wrote: "In later life, companion animal ownership may buffer against the detrimental consequences of major social losses on psychological health." In the study, depression is measured by  the "depressive symptoms" a person has.

From Medical Xpress: The pet effect: Researchers find furry friends ease depression, loneliness after spousal loss  ...continue reading "Pets Can Help With Loneliness and Depression Following Loss of a Spouse"

Back in 2015 and 2016 some studies found a link between taking medicines that are anticholinergic and cognitive decline and dementia. Some examples of non-prescription anticholinergic medications are Chlor-Trimeton, Benadryl, Tavist, and Dimetapp. During this time a person also contacted me to report that his relative, who had Down's syndrome, had once participated in a study where he received cholinergic therapy, with the result that during the study he functioned better neurologically. Meanwhile I read several studies of older people that supported the result of a higher intake of foods with choline and better neurological functioning (e.g. verbal and visual memory).

A recent large study of men over a 4 year period found an association between a  higher intake of foods with choline (dietary choline) and better performance on several cognitive tests and lower risk of dementia. The research, which was conducted in Finland, found that the relationship seemed especially strong for a type of choline called phosphatidylcholine. Eggs (specifically the egg yolks) are a primary dietary source of phosphatidylcholine, and indeed, in the study, higher egg intake was associated with better performance on several measures, including verbal fluency, as well as lower risk of dementia.

Choline is an essential nutrient, found in some foods. Its role in the body is complex, but one of its roles is to produce acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter for memory, mood, muscle control, and other brain and nervous system functions (NIH choline fact sheet). On the other hand, anticholinergic medications block the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (which is involved with learning and memory). Anticholinergic medications include many common drugs, such as some antihistamines, sleeping aids, tricyclic antidepressants, medications to control overactive bladder, and drugs to relieve the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

What should one do? First, make sure to eat some foods rich in choline, especially eggs. The researchers themselves say that "consuming an adequate amount of foods high in choline may be an easy, effective, and affordable way to maintain cognitive functioning". Good sources of choline are meat, dairy products, poultry, and eggs - and it appears that eggs (the egg yolks) are especially beneficial. Second, one should also try to avoid non-prescription and prescription medicines known to be anti-cholinergic. For example switch from allergy medicines diphenhydramine or chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton) to one that isn't anticholinergic. [See list.]

From Science Daily: Dietary choline associates with reduced risk of dementia  ...continue reading "The Choline In Eggs Is Beneficial For the Brain"

Are we looking at vitamin D and sunlight the wrong way? Back in 2016 I posted about the results of a long-running Swedish study that made me rethink everything I knew about sunlight and health. (The prevailing view of dermatologists at the time and now is: to always use sunscreen if going outdoors in order to lower the risk of skin cancer. In other words, that sunlight is always harmful.)

The Swedish study followed women for 20 years and found that: Women who had more sunlight exposure experienced a lower mortality rate than women who avoided sun exposure. However, they were at an increased risk of skin cancer. But those with more sun exposure lived longer due to a decrease in heart (cardiovascular) disease and other noncancer reasons. And the most surprising finding: Nonsmokers who avoided sun exposure had a similar life expectancy as smokers with the highest sun exposure. In other words: avoidance of sun exposure = cigarette smoking when looking at life expectancy. And the results of sun exposure was dose-dependent, with the more, the better for longer life expectancy.

The researchers suggested that  a person's vitamin D levels might be just a marker of sun exposure, which other studies and articles now also suggest. So while we measure vitamin D levels in studies, maybe we should instead be looking at sunlight exposure.

Since then I read more studies that found other benefits of sunlight exposure, such as sunlight having low levels of "blue light" which energizes T cells. T cells are a type of white blood cell, are part of the immune system, and help protect the body from infection and cellular abnormalities (cancer). An earlier study found that exposing skin to sunlight may help to reduce blood pressure and thus cut the risk of heart attack and stroke.

This year I read the following two nicely written articles about this whole issue, both a little different - so worth reading both to get a good idea about the research and the debate.

1) From Outside: Is Sunscreen the New Margarine?

2) From Elemental Medium: What If Avoiding the Sun Is Bad for You?

And once again, a link to the 20 year Swedish study, from the Journal of Internal Medicine: Avoidance of sun exposure as a risk factor for major causes of death: a competing risk analysis of the Melanoma in Southern Sweden cohort

There has been a lot of discussion recently about whether older adults form new neurons in the brain. Neurons are specialized cells transmitting nerve impulses in the brain - they are nerve cells. In other words, if elderly people form new neurons in the brain, then this is excellent news for brain function. This means we can look for ways to enhance neurogenesis (formation of new neurons) and slow or prevent cognitive decline, whether in diseases such as Alzheimer's or normal age-related cognitive declines. Because yes, it is normal to have age-related declines, but some people have more declines while others far, far less.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago studied the hippocampus of 18 elderly brains (mean age 90.6 years!) after death (post-mortem). They found both new neural stem cells (neural progenitor cells) and developing neurons in each person's brain, but the numbers varied a lot between the brains. For example, brains with evidence of Alzheimer's disease and cognitive impairments had significantly fewer developing neurons than those without cognitive declines.

These results go hand in hand with studies showing a number of known age related brain changes, such as the volume of the brain shrinking a little as we age (this is considered normal). Studies find that there are ways to slow down this shrinkage such as good nutrition (including nuts, fruits and vegetables, coffee or tea containing caffeine, eating seafood), physical activity, exercise, having mentally stimulating activities. Also, avoiding medicines with anticholinergics, and avoiding air pollution and an unhealthy Western style diet (highly processed foods, low fiber, lots of meat).

From Medical Xpress: New neurons form in the brain into the tenth decade of life, even in people with Alzheimer's  ...continue reading "New Neurons Form In the Brains Of Older Adults"

A number of studies have found that a poor sense of smell in older adults is linked to health problems (especially Parkinson's disease and dementia) and death. Now a recent study found that a poor sense of smell in older adults is associated with an almost 50% increase in their risk of dying within 10 years—especially in individuals reporting good health. In other words, a poor sense of smell is an early sign of deteriorating health, even when it is not apparent yet to the person.

Researchers at  the Michigan State Univ. College of Human Medicine  followed 2,289 persons (aged 71 to 82) for 13 years. The generally healthy persons took a smell test of 12 common odors (e.g. onion, soap, gasoline, lemon, chocolate and rose) at the start of the study, and were scored as having good, moderate, or poor sense of smell. After 13 years 1,211 of them had died. The researchers then looked to see if there was any association between scores on the smell test and their risk of death at various points over the 13 years.

No association was found at the three- or five-year mark of the study. But those with a poor sense of smell had a 46 percent higher risk of dying by 10 years and a 30 percent higher risk by 13 years, when compared with the older adults with a good sense of smell. The researchers believe the risk was lower at 13 years because so many of the participants had already died - whether their ability to smell was initially good or poor. So how to interpret the study results? It appears that a poor sense of smell may be a sensitive early sign of deteriorating health, even when it is not apparent yet.

From Medical Xpress: Poor sense of smell associated with nearly 50 percent higher risk for death in 10 years  ...continue reading "Is A Poor Sense of Smell In Older Adults A Sign of Deteriorating Health?"

Many, many people wind up taking numerous courses of antibiotics at some points in life. Think of recurrent sinus infections or urinary tract infections or other infections. Or some conditions (e.g. dental or skin conditions) are treated with really long courses of antibiotics  New research (from 36,429 women participating in the long-running Nurses' Health Study)  found that women who take antibiotics over a long period of time during middle-age (40 to 59 years old), but even more so in late adulthood (60 years and over), are at increased risk of heart attack or stroke within the next 8 years.

How increased a risk for cardiovascular diseas? 28% or higher risk (compared to those who didn't take antibiotics)! But looking at the actual numbers it means: Among women who take antibiotics for two months or more in late adulthood, six women per 1,000 would develop a cardiovascular disease, compared to three per 1,000 among women who had not taken antibiotics.

Eight years was the length of the study, so it is unknown if the increased risk persists longer. The authors give a number of possible reasons for these results, but think it might be because antibiotic use results in gut microbial alterations. And the longer the antibiotic use, the more persistent the gut microbiome (microbial community) alterations. Other research studies supports this link (antibiotic use - gut microbe disruptions - increased cardiovascular disease). Another reason to eat in as healthy a manner as possible to feed beneficial gut microbes: a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, and nuts.

From Medical Xpress: Antibiotic use linked to greater risk of heart attack and stroke in women

Women who take antibiotics over a long period of time are at increased risk of heart attack or stroke, according to research carried out in nearly 36,500 women. The study, published in the European Heart Journal today, found that women aged 60 or older who took antibiotics for two months or more had the greatest risk of cardiovascular disease, but long duration of antibiotic use was also associated with an increased risk if taken during middle age (aged 40-59). The researchers could find no increased risk from antibiotic use by younger adults aged between 20-39.  ...continue reading "Link Between Antibiotics, Heart Attacks, and Stroke Risk In Older Women"

For a few years I've been noticing that studies of vitamin D have had mixed results for a number of medical conditions. A number of times initial studies found an association with low levels of vitamin D and a number of medical conditions, but follow up well-designed studies are just not finding the same results with vitamin D supplementation - or results have been mixed. Also, in some studies, what initially looked like vitamin D being protective for some cancers and multiple sclerosis, now looks like it's sunlight that is giving the protective results. In some cases, vitamin D levels are a proxy for sunlight exposure (the more sunlight exposure, the higher the vitamin D levels in the person). The following 6 studies recently published highlight this same trend of mixed results.

While vitamin D levels increased from high dose vitamin D, there was no change in bone bone mineral density (BMD) in older adults during the 12 months of the study. No adverse effects form the vitamin D supplementation was reported [the older adults received 12,000 international units (IU), 24,000 IU, or 48,000 IU once a month]. From Science Daily: Vitamin D supplements are of no benefit to the over 70s

There is little benefit for those over 70 taking higher dose vitamin D supplements to improve their bone strength and reduce the risk of falls, new research has revealed.

High doses of vitamin D (4000 international units) appeared more beneficial than low dose vitamin D (400 international units) supplements in advanced colorectal cancer patients. From Medical Xpess: High-dose vitamin D shows benefit in patients with advanced colorectal cancer

...continue reading "Recent Vitamin D Studies Have Mixed Results"

Another study found benefits from eating nuts - this time an association between frequently eating nuts and better brain functioning in older adults. The study was done in China and was part of a long-term nutrition and cognitive function study of 4822 adults (aged 55+ years). With aging, it is normal to have some decline in brain functioning, but the researchers said that high nut consumers had much less decline - that the more nuts consumed, the less decline (an inverse relationship).

The article below makes some grand claims ("could improve their cognitive function by up to 60 per cent") for a study that found an association between long-term nut consumption of more than 10 grams (about 1/8 cup) daily and cognitive health, but this doesn't prove it. Perhaps people who eat nuts also eat other foods or do other things that are beneficial for brain functioning. But ... the good news is that eating nuts frequently appears to be beneficial. So eat and enjoy.

By the way, peanuts are not nuts - they are legumes (also beans and peas) - but they have numerous health benefits, and were counted as nuts in this study. Common tree nuts are cashews, almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, pine nuts, pistachios, chestnuts, lichee nuts, and Brazil nuts. [See all posts on health benefits of nuts.]

From Science Daily: A nutty solution for improving brain health

Long-term, high nut consumption could be the key to better cognitive health in older people according to new research from the University of South Australia.  ...continue reading "Another Reason To Eat Nuts Frequently"

A recently published study attempted to compare countries to determine at what age does the average person feel like they are 65 years old - that is, at what age do they experience the typical health problems of a 65 year old (age-related diseases). We all generally want to live a healthy long life. But the reality is that most people will develop 1 or more health-related conditions or diseases as they age, with perhaps both physical and mental deterioration. The researchers looked at both among world countries - chronological age and the onset of age-related diseases and conditions (out of 92 conditions). As expected, when people have the health problems of an "average 65 year old" varies tremendously between countries.

The US didn't do so well: "At 68.5 years, the United States ranked 54th, between Iran (69.0 years) and Antigua and Barbuda (68.4 years)." Japan did the best - there 76 year olds have the same level of health problems as an "average" 65 year old. These findings match earlier research looking at worldwide populations, which found that no matter how long a person lives - about 1/8 of their life will be spent unhealthy or disabled, typically in the decade before death.

From Science Daily:  Wide variations in how well or poorly people age

A new study reveals wide variations in how well or poorly people age. A 30-year gap separates countries with the highest and lowest ages at which people experience the health problems of a 65-year-old, according to a new scientific study. Researchers found 76-year-olds in Japan and 46-year-olds in Papua New Guinea have the same level of age-related health problems as an 'average' person aged 65.  

These negative effects include impaired functions and loss of physical, mental, and cognitive abilities resulting from the 92 conditions analyzed, five of which are communicable and 81 non-communicable, along with six injuries. The studies and additional information are available at http://www.healthdata.org.   ...continue reading "At What Age Do You Feel 65?"

Once again a study found benefits from exercise - specifically that regular exercise is better for the brain and for thinking skills (for "executive function"). Executive function is a person's ability to regulate his or her own behavior, pay attention, manage new information and unexpected challenges, to plan, organize, and achieve goals. Executive functioning can decline in older adults - "age-related declines". So it's definitely beneficial to prevent or slow down a decline in thinking skills.

In this study 132 individuals (aged 20 to 67 years) living in New York City were either randomly assigned to a stretching group or an aerobic exercise group for 6 months. They were given a number of tests (at the start, at 3 mos, and at 6 mos.) to measure executive function, memory, IQ, etc. After 6 months the aerobic exercise group had a number of benefits (compared to the stretching group): they reduced their BMI (body mass index), they increased the cortical thickness in a part of their brain (this is good), and they had improved executive function thinking. The researchers found that the aerobic exercise showed more benefit to older adults than the younger adults.

How much did the aerobic group exercise? The individuals had 4 sessions a week of aerobic exercise (stationary cycling, treadmill, elliptical machine) which consisted of 10 to 15 minutes of warm-up/cool down, and 30 to 40 minutes of exercise. Note that at the start of the study all persons were healthy, sedentary non-exercisers - with "below median aerobic capacity". Meaning that there is hope for all of us to benefit from regular exercise whether a young adult or over 60.

For those persons that dread going to a gym or spend money for exercise equipment  - you don't need it! Just get out and walk briskly, or ride a bicycle, climb stairs regularly - in other words, move! The goal is to get your heart pumping. From Science Daily -

Exercise may improve thinking skills in people as young as 20

Regular aerobic exercise such as walking, cycling or climbing stairs may improve thinking skills not only in older people but in young people as well, according to a study published in the January 30, 2019, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. ...continue reading "Aerobic Exercise, Thinking Skills, and the Brain"