Skip to content

Are you exercising frequently? No? Perhaps you need a good motivating reason. Recent study results provide a good reason (brain health!) for all of us to exercise or do some form of of moderate physical activity for at least 2 1/2 hours per week.

A study conducted in Germany found evidence of an association between cardiorespiratory fitness and brain health, particularly in gray matter volume and total brain volume. The researchers found that higher cardiorespiratory fitness is associated with larger brain volumes in several brain regions that are involved with cognitive functioning.

The study found that exercise (which improves cardiorespiratory fitness) was especially beneficial for older adults. This is because there is some shrinkage of brain volume in normal aging, as well as in some diseases - thus want to prevent brain volume shrinkage as much as possible.

For example, one of the areas of the brain that that had greater volume with cardiorespiratory fitness was the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays a central role in memory-related functions and in stress regulation. This is an important finding because shrinking of the hippocampus (atrophy) is associated with several diseases and disorders, such as Alzheimer disease, depression, and schizophrenia.

What exactly is cardiorespiratory fitness? Cardiorespiratory fitness refers to the ability of the circulatory and respiratory systems to supply oxygen during physical activity. It is a big part of physical fitness and can be improved through regular physical activity, such as exercise. Higher cardiorespiratory fitness is associated with lower risk of heart disease and metabolic syndrome.

Bottom line: Get out and move, move, move to improve your cardiorespiratory fitness and so also benefit the brain. After all, we all want to prevent brain volume shrinkage (and cognitive decline) if at all possible. By the way, other studies also find beneficial brain effects from regular physical activity and exercise, even light physical activity.

...continue reading "Physical Activity Is Beneficial For The Brain"

Exercise appears to protect against some cancers. Yes, something so simple as merely getting the recommended amount of 2 1/2 hours per week of exercise (e.g. brisk walks) really lowers the risk of 7 cancers: colon, breast, endometrial, kidney, myeloma, liver, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The researchers analyzed 9 studies for a total of 755,459 individuals (median age 62 years, 53% females) who were followed for 10.1 years, and found that 50,620 cancers developed. They specifically looked at 15 cancers and found that exercise lowered the risk of 7 cancers. Some, but not all, were lowered in a dose response manner, that is, the more exercise, the bigger the protective effect (e.g. breast, colon, endometrial cancer). How much the cancer risk was lowered with exercise varied by types of cancer: colon (8%-14% lower risk in men), breast (6%-10% lower risk), endometrial (10%-18% lower risk), kidney (11%-17% lower risk), myeloma (14%-19% lower risk), liver (18%-27% lower risk), and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (11%-18% lower risk in women).

How much exercise was needed for a cancer protective effect? About 2 1/2 to 5 hours per week of moderate-intensity physical activity, such as brisk walking. The study looked at "leisure-time" exercise, which can include exercise, sports or any recreational activity which is typically "moderate to vigorous intensity".

The Physical Activity Guidelines from the US Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults do at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity. Brisk walking is moderate intensity physical activity. Bottom line: get out and move, move, move!

From Medical Xpress: Report links recommended physical activity levels to lower risk of seven cancers   ...continue reading "Exercise May Lower The Risk Of Some Cancers"

Once again a study finds an association between a Western diet (lots of processed meat, red meat, fried food, desserts, low fiber, high in refined grains, sugar sweetened beverages, and high-fat dairy) and a poor health outcome - this time a significantly higher incidence of late-stage age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

Interestingly though, a Western dietary pattern did not seem to be associated with whether a person developed early AMD - only with whether it would progress to late-stage AMD. And late-stage AMD is the one that results in loss of central vision (in the retina), which means a person will then be unable to drive.

This study followed 1278 people over an 18 year period. Those who ate a Western style diet (considered unhealthy) had a 3 times higher rate of late-stage AMD as compared to those who had a "prudent" (healthy) dietary pattern. Out of 1278 persons - 117 developed early AMD and 27 developed late AMD (20 of them progressed from no AMD to late AMD over the 18 years, and 7 progressed from early AMD to late AMD).

What kinds of foods seemed especially protective? The researchers said that eating the following  foods appeared protective: cruciferous (e.g. broccoli), foods high in carotene (e.g. carrots), dark green leafy and other vegetables, poultry, fresh fruits, legumes, fish and sea foods - what they called part of a "prudent" diet, but can also be thought of as a Mediterranean dietary pattern.

One thing I question is whether "high fat dairy" (which they said was margarine & butter) should have lumped together margarine and butter. After all, margarine is a concoction made with trans fats and linked to health problems, while butter (made from milk/cream) is very different.

From Science Daily: Poor diet linked to age-related macular degeneration  ...continue reading "A Person’s Diet And Age-Related Macular Degeneration"

Several recent studies have highlighted the negative effects of air pollution on the brain, specifically from the tiniest particles in polluted air (called PM 2.5). These tiny particles get to the human brain and cause all sorts of damage. Even at levels within government guidelines.

Two studies found that with higher chronic (daily) exposure to PM2.5 air pollution there were structural changes to the brain. Which is negative to brain health, of course.

With chronic exposure to higher levels of  PM2.5 air pollution: one study found greater declines in memory and more Alzheimer's-like brain atrophy in older women in the USA; and the second study found that higher prenatal exposure was associated with a smaller corpus callosum (a part of the brain) later in childhood. Thus structural changes in the brain!

The tiniest particles are 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter, about 1/30th the width of human hair - and referred to as PM2.5. These fine particles are produced by all sorts of combustion, including motor vehicles, power plants, residential wood burning, agricultural burning, some industrial processes, and forest fires. Typically there is much more exposure to PM2.5 in busy urban streets, and less in quiet suburban streets.

Researchers in Barcelona, Spain found that long-term higher prenatal exposure to PM2.5 particulate matter, especially during the last trimester of pregnancy, is associated with a smaller corpus callosum in children between the ages of 8 and 12 years. This is an important finding because a smaller (reduced volume) corpus callosum is found in ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), ASD (autism spectrum disorder), and hyperactivity. So here we see a structural change in the brain from air pollution at PM2.5 levels that are considered acceptable (within guidelines) by the European Union!

A report called The State of Global Air/2018 stated that studies show that long-term exposure to PM2.5  particles in the air "is the most consistent and robust predictor" of death from heart disease and stroke, lung cancer, and respiratory illnesses. And then there are nitrogen oxides and ozone, which are also linked to death. There are also nanoparticles (e.g., from friction of tires being used) that penetrate deep into the human body.

A 2018 The Guardian article called air pollution "the new tobacco". And that it's time to tackle this epidemic. Yup. Unfortunately, current air pollution standards are being relaxed in all sorts of ways under the current U.S. administration. Beware!

First study. Excerpts from Medical Xpress: Exposure to PM 2.5 pollution linked to brain atrophy, memory decline  ...continue reading "Air Pollution and the Brain, Part 1"

Walking is important for health, but walking speed is also important. It turns out that slow walking speed or gait (particularly when trying to walk as fast as possible) is a problem sign already in mid-life (the 40s). Researchers found that slow walking speed is a sign of "accelerated aging",  and that slow walkers exhibited such signs as reduced brain volume, cortical thinning, and reduced brain surface area.

The Duke University researchers found that a slow walking speed at midlife was associated with poorer mental functioning, and that there was an average difference of 16 IQ points between the slowest and fastest walkers. The researchers point out that this matches other studies showing that there is an association of slow walking speed of older adults and cognitive impairment and risk of dementia. The researchers viewed midlife gait speed as a summary of life-long aging, and felt that some differences were apparent already at the age of three. [This was a 5 decade long study in New Zealand of 904 persons.]

From Medical Xpress: Slower walkers have older brains and bodies at 45

The walking speed of 45-year-olds, particularly their fastest walking speed without running, can be used as a marker of their aging brains and bodies ...continue reading "Are You A Slow Or Fast Walker?"

A recently published study found that a strong ability in languages may help reduce the risk of dementia. The study of 325 Roman Catholic nuns (75 years or older) in the United States found some differences in the 109 women (33.5%) who developed dementia later in life compared to those who didn't. They found that more years of education was protective. Those speaking 2 or more languages were less likely to develop dementia than women only speaking one language (35% developed dementia) with 4 or more languages the most protective (only 6% of these women developed dementia). However, speaking 2 or more languages did not significantly affect the age at onset of dementia.

But the strongest predictor of later developing dementia was written linguistic ability, especially "idea density". Idea density was viewed as the average number of ideas expressed per 10 written words.180 of the women provided autobiographical essays that they had written decades earlier (in early adulthood) and the researchers looked at the essays for idea density and grammatical complexity. The researchers suggested that written linguistic ability was a measure of "cognitive function" or brain health.

From Science Daily: What multilingual nuns can tell us about dementia  ...continue reading "Does Speaking Several Languages Lower the Risk of Dementia?"

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"