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Image result for soccer ball Many studies have discussed the short-term and long-term harm to the brain from playing tackle football, especially when starting the game at an early age (before the age of 12) , and from getting concussions and sub-concussions. But relatively little has been said about the possibility of similar harm from soccer (see post).

Finally a study looking at the practice of heading the ball in soccer - where yes, the person is directly hitting the soccer ball with his or her head, whether during a game or routine heading practice. Any harm from that? Yes. There were measurable brain function changes in both male and female young adults after heading a soccer ball 20 times during one practice session. While the changes ("short and long term memory function and corticomotor inhibition") were temporary, the researchers were concerned over possible long term brain effects (perhaps similar to those found in football players) when there are many practice sessions and soccer games, over many years. From Science Daily:

Heading a soccer ball causes instant changes to the brain

Researchers from the University of Stirling have explored the true impact of heading a soccer ball, identifying small but significant changes in brain function immediately after routine heading practice. The study from Scotland's University for Sporting Excellence published in EBioMedicine is the first to detect direct changes in the brain after players are exposed to everyday head impacts, as opposed to clinical brain injuries like concussion.

A group of soccer ball players headed a ball 20 times, fired from a machine designed to simulate the pace and power of a corner kick. Before and after the heading sessions, scientists tested players' brain function and memoryIncreased inhibition in the brain was detected after just a single session of heading. Memory test performance was also reduced by between 41 and 67 per cent, with effects normalising within 24 hours. Whether the changes to the brain remain temporary after repeated exposure to a soccer ball and the long-term consequences of heading on brain health, are yet to be investigated.

Played by more than 250 million people worldwide, the 'beautiful game' often involves intentional and repeated bursts of heading a ball. In recent years the possible link between brain injury in sport and increased risk of dementia has focused attention on whether soccer ball heading might lead to long term consequences for brain health.

Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Magdalena Ietswaart from Psychology at the University of Stirling, said: "In light of growing concern about the effects of contact sport on brain health, we wanted to see if our brain reacts instantly to heading a soccer ball. Using a drill most amateur and professional teams would be familiar with, we found there was in fact increased inhibition in the brain immediately after heading and that performance on memory tests was reduced significantly.

"Although the changes were temporary, we believe they are significant to brain health, particularly if they happen over and over again as they do in soccer ball heading. With large numbers of people around the world participating in this sport, it is important that they are aware of what is happening inside the brain and the lasting effect this may have." In the study, scientists measured levels of brain function using a basic neuroscience technique called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS).  (Original study)

A nice summary article about the benefits and risks of coffee consumption. Summary of effects of drinking coffee1) May potentially increase blood pressure, but also may lower the risk for coronary disease, and protect against heart disease. 2) May cut stroke risk by as much as 25%, 3) Linked to  improved glucose metabolism, reduced risk for type 2 diabetes, and promotion of weight loss in overweight patients. 4) May reduce the risk for several cancers. 5) Appears to slow the progression of dementia and Parkinson's disease. 6) A significantly decreased risk of developing depression. 7) Slows progression in alcoholic cirrhosis, hepatitis C, and NAFLD (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease). 8) May be beneficial in dry-eye syndrome, gout, and in preventing MRSA infection. 9) May increase blood pressure, anxiety, insomnia, tremor, withdrawal symptoms, and potential increased risk of glaucoma. From Medscape:

How Healthy Is Coffee? The Latest Evidence

Earlier this year, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) released a report[1] stating that up to five cups of coffee per day, or up to 400 mg of caffeine, is not associated with long-term health risks. Not only that, they highlighted observational evidence that coffee consumption is associated with reduced risk for several diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease (CVD), and neurodegenerative disorders. The body of data suggesting that moderate coffee—and, in all likelihood, tea—consumption is not only safe but beneficial in a variety of mental and medical conditions is growing fast.

A 2012 study of over 400,000 people, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reported that coffee consumption is associated with a 10% reduction in all-cause mortality at 13-year follow-up.... It's important to note that much of the evidence on the potential health effects of coffee, caffeine, and other foods and nutrients is associational and doesn't prove causality—observational investigations come with limitations and often rely on error-prone methods such as patient questionnaires. However, the sheer volume of existing observational data linking coffee and/or caffeine with various health benefits—as well as, in many cases, evidence of a dose response—suggests that the most widely consumed stimulant in the world has positive influences on our health. 

Cardiovascular Disease:...However, when caffeine is ingested via coffee, enduring blood pressure elevations are small and cardiovascular risks may be balanced by protective properties. Coffee beans contain antioxidant compounds that reduce oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and coffee consumption has been associated with reduced concentrations of inflammatory markers. Moderate coffee intake is associated with a lower risk for coronary heart disease as far out as 10 years, and data suggest that an average of two cups per day protects against heart failure.

Cerebrovascular Disease and Stroke: The vascular benefits of coffee are not lost on the brain. According to a 2011 meta-analysis, consuming between one and six cups per day reportedly cut stroke risk by 17%. A 22%-25% risk reduction was seen in a large sample of Swedish women followed for an average of 10 years.

Diabetes:...Numerous studies have linked regular coffee drinking with improved glucose metabolism, insulin secretion, and a significantly reduced risk for diabetes. Most recently, findings from a long-term study published this year suggest that coffee drinkers are roughly half as likely to develop type 2 diabetes as are nonconsumers, even after accounting for smoking, high blood pressure, and family history of diabetes.

Cancer: ...Evidence suggests that moderate to heavy coffee consumption can reduce the risk for numerous cancers, including endometrial (> 4 cups/day), prostate (6 cups/day), head and neck (4 cups/day), basal cell carcinoma (> 3 cups/day), melanoma,and breast cancer (> 5 cups/day). The benefits are thought to be at least partially due to coffee's antioxidant and antimutagenic properties.

Neurodegeneration: Beyond the short-term mental boost it provides, coffee also appears to benefit longer-term cognitive well-being. A 2012 study reported that patients with mild cognitive impairment and plasma caffeine levels of > 1200 ng/mL—courtesy of approximately three to five cups of coffee per day—avoided progression to dementia over the following 2-4 years. On a related note, a study from last year reported that caffeine consumption appears to enhance memory consolidation....Caffeinated coffee has long been thought to be neuroprotective in Parkinson disease (PD)....—as well as in multiple sclerosis

Depression: A 2011 study suggests that a boost in coffee consumption might also benefit our mental health: Women who drank two to three cups of coffee per day had a 15% decreased risk for depression compared with those who drank less than one cup per week. A 20% decreased risk was seen in those who drank four cups or more per day. Newer work also suggests that regular coffee drinking may be protective against depression.

Liver Disease: The liver might help break down coffee, but coffee might protect the liver (in some cases). Evidence suggests that coffee consumption slows disease progression in patients with alcoholic cirrhosis and hepatitis C, and reduces the risk of developing hepatocellular carcinoma. A 2012 study reported that coffee intake is associated with a lower risk for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), while work published in 2014 found that coffee protects against liver fibrosis in those with already established NAFLD.

And That's Not All…: An assortment of other research suggests that coffee intake might also relieve dry-eye syndrome by increasing tear production, reduce the risk for gout, and potentially fight infection. Coffee and hot tea consumption were found to be protective against one of the medical community's most concerning bugs, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). While it remains unclear whether the beverages have systemic antimicrobial activity, study participants who reported any consumption of either were approximately half as likely to have MRSA in their nasal passages.

And Finally, the Risks: As is often the case, with benefits come risks, and coffee consumption certainly has negative medical and psychiatric effects to consider. Besides the aforementioned potential increase in blood pressure, coffee can incite or worsen anxiety, insomnia, and tremor and potentially elevate glaucoma risk. Also, given the potential severity of symptoms, caffeine withdrawal syndrome is included as a diagnosis in the DSM-5.

   Trans fats are commonly used in processed foods to improve taste, texture, and shelf life. Artificial trans fats are found in partially hydrogenated oils and in other ingredients, such as refined oils, emulsifiers, flavors and colors. Even those processed foods that say zero trans fats may contain trans fats - due to a loophole in labeling laws (if it has less than .5 grams per serving, then it can be rounded down to zero - thus allowing the incorrect claim of zero trans fats). Eating a variety of processed foods, each containing a little trans fats, easily adds up to eating a significant amount daily.Trans fats in the diet have long been linked to cardiovascular disease, artherosclerosis, obesity, oxidative stress, and inflammation, but now research finds that it is linked to a poorer memory in middle-aged men under the age of 45. From Science Daily:

Dietary trans fat linked to worse memory

Higher consumption of dietary trans fatty acids (dTFA), commonly used in processed foods to improve taste, texture and durability, has been linked to worsened memory function in men 45 years old and younger, according to a study.

Researchers evaluated data from 1,018 men and women who were asked to complete a dietary survey and memory test involving word recall. On average, men aged 45 and younger recalled 86 words; however, for each additional gram of trans fats consumed daily, performance dropped by 0.76 words. This translates to an expected 12 fewer words recalled by young men with dTFA intake levels matching the highest observed in the study, compared to otherwise similar men consuming no trans fats.

After adjusting for age, exercise, education, ethnicity and mood, the link between higher dTFA and poorer memory was maintained in men 45 and younger.The study focused predominantly on men because of a small number of women in this age group. However, including women in the analysis did not change the finding, said Golomb. An association of dTFA to word memory was not observed in older populations. Golomb said this is likely due to dietary effects showing more clearly in younger adults. Insults and injuries to the brain accrue with age and add variability to memory scores that can swamp ability to detect diet effects.

Trans fatty acids have been linked to negative effects on lipid profiles, metabolic function, insulin resistance, inflammation and cardiac and general health. In 2013, the United States Food and Drug Administration issued a preliminary determination that trans fats were no longer generally recognized as safe. According to the Centers for Disease Control, reducing dTFA consumption could prevent 10,000 to 20,000 heart attacks and 3,000 to 7,000 coronary heart disease deaths per year in the U.S.

Chocolate lovers are rejoicing! From the NY Times:

To Improve a Memory, Consider Chocolate

Science edged closer on Sunday to showing that an antioxidant in chocolate appears to improve some memory skills that people lose with age. In a small study in the journal Nature Neuroscience, healthy people, ages 50 to 69, who drank a mixture high in antioxidants called cocoa flavanols for three months performed better on a memory test than people who drank a low-flavanol mixture.

On average, the improvement of high-flavanol drinkers meant they performed like people two to three decades younger on the study’s memory task, said Dr. Scott A. Small,a neurologist at Columbia University Medical Center and the study’s senior author. They performed about 25 percent better than the low-flavanol group.

The findings support recent research linking flavanols, especially epicatechin, to improved blood circulation, heart health and memory in mice, snails and humans. But experts said the new study, although involving only 37 participants and partly funded by Mars Inc.,the chocolate company, goes further and was a well-controlled, randomized trial led by experienced researchers.

Besides improvements on the memory test — a pattern recognition test involving the kind of skill used in remembering where you parked the car or recalling the face of someone you just met — researchers found increased function in an area of the brain’s hippocampus called the dentate gyrus, which has been linked to this type of memory.

To consume the high-flavanol group’s daily dose of epicatechin, 138 milligrams, would take eating at least 300 grams of dark chocolate a day — about seven average-sized bars. Or possibly about 100 grams of baking chocolate or unsweetened cocoa powder, but concentrations vary widely depending on the processing. Milk chocolate has most epicatechin processed out of it.

More extensive research is planned. As for why flavanols would help memory, one theory is that they improve brain blood flow; another, favored by Dr. Small, is that they cause dendrites, message-receiving branches of neurons, to grow.

Fish consumption was beneficial for the brain, but brain differences among the groups not correlating with blood omega-3 levels was a surprise. From  Science Daily:

Eating baked, broiled fish weekly boosts brain health, study says

Eating baked or broiled fish once a week is good for the brain, regardless of how much omega-3 fatty acid it contains, according to researchers. The findings add to growing evidence that lifestyle factors contribute to brain health later in life. Scientists estimate that more than 80 million people will have dementia by 2040, which could become a substantial burden to families and drive up health care costs.

"Our study shows that people who ate a diet that included baked or broiled, but not fried, fish have larger brain volumes in regions associated with memory and cognition," Dr. Becker said. "We did not find a relationship between omega-3 levels and these brain changes, which surprised us a little. It led us to conclude that we were tapping into a more general set of lifestyle factors that were affecting brain health of which diet is just one part."

Lead investigator Cyrus Raji, M.D., Ph.D., who now is in radiology residency training at UCLA, and the research team analyzed data from 260 people who provided information on their dietary intake, had high-resolution brain MRI scans, and were cognitively normal at two time points during their participation in the Cardiovascular Health Study (CHS), a 10-year multicenter effort that began in 1989 to identify risk factors for heart disease in people over 65.

"The subset of CHS participants answered questionnaires about their eating habits, such as how much fish did they eat and how was it prepared," Dr. Raji said. "Baked or broiled fish contains higher levels of omega-3s than fried fish because the fatty acids are destroyed in the high heat of frying, so we took that into consideration when we examined their brain scans."

People who ate baked or broiled fish at least once a week had greater grey matter brain volumes in areas of the brain responsible for memory (4.3 percent) and cognition (14 percent) and were more likely to have a college education than those who didn't eat fish regularly, the researchers found. But no association was found between the brain differences and blood levels of omega-3s.

"This suggests that lifestyle factors, in this case eating fish, rather than biological factors contribute to structural changes in the brain," Dr. Becker noted. "A confluence of lifestyle factors likely are responsible for better brain health, and this reserve might prevent or delay cognitive problems that can develop later in life."

The benefits of exercise and being fit keeps growing. From Medical Daily:

Physical Fitness In Your 20s Can Help Preserve Your Thinking Skills Later On In Life

If you need some motivation to get up off the couch and in your running shoes than how about this; a new study has proved that those who are fitter in their 20s are sharper thinkers in their middle age. So not only does exercise improve your health, slim your waistline, and lift your mood, but apparently it can also make you smarter. 

The study was carried out by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco. It started in 1985 and was conducted on nearly 3,000 19- to 30-year-olds in the U.S. The participants were asked to do a treadmill test and undergo physical examinations. They were asked to run for as long as they could without becoming exhausted or short of breath, according to the BBC. Then, 20 years later, the participants agreed to repeat the physical test. Five years after the second physical exam the participants underwent brain testing. These included a word recall test, a number-based test of attention, thinking speed and memory, and a test of how well people can focus while tuning out distractions. Results showed that the better people did on the treadmill test 20 years earlier, the better they did on the memory test. Also, those who had kept up their fitness later on in life scored the best overall in the memory tests. The researchers took into account factors such as weight, sex, drinking, smoking, and education. Still, those who did better on the treadmill test seemed to do better on the memory tests years later. 

The reasoning for this is that the brain uses a lot of oxygen and people who are fitter make more efficient use of oxygen. Also, exercise improves mitochondrial function, which is necessary in making use of energy. It is emphasized that this increase in brain function cannot be attributed to exercise alone. People who are physically fit are less likely to be sat in front of a television and more likely to interact with people and be engaged in life. “Just moving around — being engaged in family and life as opposed to sitting down and watching TV and pretty much not doing anything, they are going to preserve brain function. This is really about engagement in life,” lead researcher David Jacobs told NBC News. The study will continue by observing whether physical fitness in youth makes individuals less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease later on in life. “Investment in research is vital to better understand how we can protect our brains as we age,” Jacobs concluded.

This research also ties in with another study released this week that showed young adults who had better heart health, as measured by blood pressure, have better thinking skills in middle age than those with high blood pressure.

Another positive piece of news for those getting on in years. From Jan. 20, 2014 Science News:

Forget About Forgetting: Elderly Know More, Use It Better

What happens to our cognitive abilities as we age? If your think our brains go into a steady decline, research reported this week in the Journal Topics in Cognitive Science may make you think again. The work, headed by Dr. Michael Ramscar of Tübingen University, takes a critical look at the measures usually thought to show that our cognitive abilities decline across adulthood. Instead of finding evidence of decline, the team discovered that most standard cognitive measures, which date back to the early twentieth century, are flawed. "The human brain works slower in old age," says Ramscar, "but only because we have stored more information over time."

Ramscar and his colleagues' work provides more than an explanation of why, in the light of all the extra information they have to process, we might expect older brains to seem slower and more forgetful than younger brains. Their work also shows how changes in test performance that have been taken as evidence for declining cognitive abilities in fact demonstrates older adults' greater mastery of the knowledge they have acquired.

The Tübingen research conclude that we need different tests for the cognitive abilities of older people -- taking into account the nature and amount of information our brains process. "The brains of older people do not get weak," says Michael Ramscar. "On the contrary, they simply know more."