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Walking For Brain Health 

We know that regular exercise benefits fitness overall and heart health in particular, and now a new study from the University of Kansas suggests that even a little exercise can help improve some thinking skills that wane with age. Researchers recruited 101 healthy seniors 65 or older with no cognitive impairments and tested their aerobic capacity, memory and thinking. They then divided the volunteers into three groups to perform supervised brisk walking on a treadmill in a gym for 75, 150 or 225 minutes a week. Those in a fourth group served as controls and didn’t exercise. After 26 weeks, retesting showed improvements in fitness that varied depending on how much time the participants exercised, but it also showed positive trends in two aspects of cognition - the ability to control their attention and to create visual maps of spaces in their heads.  No differences in thinking were seen between improvements in those who exercised least and those who put in more time. The conclusion: just a little bit of exercise may be all you need to keep your wits about you as you age.

My take: These are interesting findings, but they don’t yet answer the pressing question of how much exercise – if any – can help delay mental decline in processes such as Alzheimer’s disease. Studies are in the works to determine whether physical activity can serves as an effective primary or secondary intervention, but we’re not likely to know the results for years. While keeping the mind healthy is a priority, the small amount of physical activity that proved beneficial for the brain in this study falls short of what you need for fitness and heart health. I recommend that seniors walk briskly for 45 minute a day. In the meantime, as this study suggests, sufficient exercise to boost heart health and general fitness may also help keep your thinking skills intact. 


Diet And Depression

We know that eating a Mediterranean diet can help reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke, and new evidence published this month suggests that it also may protect against depression. Researchers from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria studied more than 15,000 people who were following the recommendations of a Mediterranean-like diet for more than 8 years. None of the participants were depressed when they joined the study, and they were asked to score their adherence to the diets by rating meats and sweets negatively and nuts, fruits and vegetables positively. The researchers reported that the higher the score, the greater the adherence to a healthy diet. Over 8.5 years, 1,550 of the participants reported that they had been diagnosed with depression or had used antidepressant drugs. The researchers concluded that the greatest reduction in the risk of depression was linked to a diet called the “Alternative Healthy Eating Index-2010”, which is similar to the Mediterranean Diet in that in emphasizes foods providing omega-3 fatty acids, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and a moderate alcohol intake. They wrote that even a moderate adherence to the diets was associated with a reduced risk of depression and that there was no additional benefit to high or very high adherence. The researchers said further studies are needed to identify what nutrients are protective, and which might contribute to depression.

My take: This is an interesting study, which supports the view that an anti-inflammatory diet may counter whole body inflammation, a possible contributor to psychological disorders, especially depression. While I don't think that inflammation is the only factor leading to depression, much of the reported rise in the rates of depression may be due to inflammation fostered by increased consumption of highly processed foods, including quick-digesting carbohydrate foods.  An anti-inflammatory diet, which is modeled on the Mediterranean diet with Asian influences, promotes foods that can help control inflammation, as well as the micronutrients and phytonutrients to protect your body (and mind) from inflammation's damaging effects. 


Smaller Servings, Please

You may think this is a no-brainer, but researchers in England have found evidence that if we can eat smaller portions, we can cut calories substantially. Investigators from the University of Cambridge concluded that eliminating the larger-size portions served in many restaurants or eaten at home could result in reducing average daily calorie consumption by 16 percent (279 calories) among adults in the UK, and by 29 percent (527 calories) among adults in the U.S. They reviewed 61 studies that included data on 6,711 participants and found that the effect of trimming portion sizes didn’t vary substantively between men or women or by people’s body mass. These factors also didn’t affect susceptibility to hunger or tendency to consciously control eating behavior. The investigators noted that the incentive to purchase (and then eat or drink) large size portions is simply that these amounts are often perceived to be a better value for the money. Still to be determined is how to actually reduce the size, availability and appeal of large servings. Also at issue: whether short-term reductions in the amount people eat can translate into long-term beneficial changes in consumption.


Smoking And Your Teeth

Smoking increases the risk of heart disease and lung cancer, but even before those potentially deadly diseases develop, regular smokers are more likely to begin losing their teeth. A new study from Britain’s University of Birmingham and the German Institute of Human Nutrition determined that men who smoke are 3.6 times more prone to lose their teeth than non-smokers, while among women smokers the risk is 2.5 times higher. The researchers based their conclusions on data gathered from 23,376 participants in a long-term study in Germany. Part of the problem is that smoking is a strong risk factor in promoting tooth decay and gum disease, both of which can lead to tooth loss. The investigators noted that smoking can mask bleeding gums, a key symptom of gum disease, so that a smoker’s gums may look healthier than they actually are. The good news is that quitting smoking can reverse the increased risk of tooth loss, although the researchers wrote that it could take more than 10 years for the risk to equal that of someone who never smoked. 


How Obesity Raises Breast Cancer Risk

We know that obesity raises the risk of breast cancer in women – it also worsens the outlook when the disease occurs – and recent research from Cornell University might help explain the association. The proposed mechanism is a change in the consistency of breast tissue in ways that can promote malignancy. The study found that obesity seems to prompt a remodeling of fat in the breast, including a thickening of the matrix found between breast cells, and that these changes create conditions that foster tumor growth. The researchers explained that fat tissue in obese women has more wound healing cells than fat tissue in normal weight women.  When these cells, called myofibroblasts, create an extracellular matrix, they pull together as they would to close a wound, with the effect of stiffening the tissue. This process of remodeling appears to open the door for tumors to develop, increasing the risk of cancer. Because these changes don’t show up on mammograms, lead researcher Claudia Fischbach suggested that higher resolution imaging techniques might be needed to detect them. Another practical consideration: use of fat cells from obese patients in plastic or reconstructive surgery following mastectomy in breast cancer patients may create conditions that could lead to another malignancy.


New Plus For Pilates

Pilates is best known as a sometimes intensive form of strength training that can help relieve back pain and build core stabilizing muscles. Now a small study from Spain suggests that the exercises can help older women with aching backs improve their balance, as well as reduce the fear of falling. Researchers at the University of Jaen followed 97 women over age 65 who were given two physiotherapy sessions per week that included 40 minutes of nerve stimulation plus 20 minutes of massage and stretching exercises. Half the women also took two hours of Pilates instruction per week. After six weeks, the women who performed Pilates reported a reduced risk of falling, a change that did not occur among the other women participating. The researchers also relayed that the women in the Pilates group had greater improvements in balance as well as less back pain than the others in the study. They tested the women’s balance with a timed test that required them to stand up from a chair, walk three meters (about 10 feet) turn, and sit down again. More studies are needed to evaluate the longer-term effect of Pilates on balance and whether or not the findings apply to younger women, the researchers said. 


Nature’s Influence On Sleep

If you’re a man – or over 65 – and having trouble sleeping, spending a little more time in natural surroundings may be the fix you need. A new investigation from the University of Illinois explored the influence of natural settings on sleep and found a clear benefit for men, regardless of age, and on seniors of both sexes. The natural setting could be a nearby park, beach, or area with an ocean view, the researchers found. They reached this conclusion by first reviewing data from a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey of 255,171 representative U.S. adults, to determine whether there was a link between days of self-reported insufficient sleep and access to green space. They then conducted their own survey, which revealed that men and women reporting 21 to 29 days of insufficient sleep had less access to green space and natural amenities than those who reported less trouble sleeping. Study leader Diana S. Grigsby-Toussaint noted that living near green spaces is associated with higher levels of physical activity, a contributor that predicts sleeping well. She suggested that men more than women benefited from the activity, perhaps because older women took less advantage of natural surroundings out of safety concerns.

My take: I can testify to the beneficial influence of spending time in natural settings. As I’ve gotten older, I have found that I need regular time in quiet outdoor spaces – my mood suffers if I don’t take a nature break. In recent years, we’ve been learning more from scientific studies about the benefits to health associated with natural settings. I’ve written on this site about “forest therapy”, the physiological impact of spending time in the woods being studied in Japan. Research there indicates that this interaction with nature can lower levels of cortisol, the hormone that rises when we're under stress. It can also lower blood pressure and pulse rate and trigger a dramatic increase in the activity of natural killer (NK) cells, which are produced by the immune system to ward off infection and fight cancer. I’m not at all surprised to read that natural settings – and associated physical activity – have beneficial effects on sleep.


Washing Dishes To Chill Out

Washing dishes may seem an unlikely stress management therapy, but a new study suggests that it might be an ideal way to unwind. Researchers at Florida State University set out to learn whether dishwashing mindfully – paying attention to such elements of the chore as the scent of the soap and the shape and feel of the dishes – could help reduce stress. They recruited 51 college students and assessed their positive and negative personality traits, their mindful states and their psychological well being. The investigators then divided the students into two groups. Those in one group read a short passage on the sensory experience of dishwashing, while those in the other group read about proper dishwashing techniques. The students responded with their impressions of the two passages verbally and in writing, and then each participant washed 18 clean dishes. Afterward, the researchers found that nervousness decreased by 27 percent in the mindful dishwashers and mental inspiration increased by 25 percent. No such changes took place in those who had read about dishwashing techniques. The researchers concluded that routine daily activities such as dishwashing afford openings for mindful meditation, and offer opportunities to help calm the mind and body.