Friday, August 29, 2008

Staying Healthy and Vigorous All Your Life

The headline on the story in the August 26 New York Times says it all: “Living Longer, in Good Health to the End.”

Isn’t that the way we all want it to be?

I think so. This article, by Jane E. Brody in the Times’ Personal Health column, is one of many I’ve seen lately offering encouragement that the final years of life don’t have to be a prolonged period of discomfort, distress and suffering.

“There is increasing evidence that the societal burden of increased longevity need not be so drastic,” says the article. “Long-term studies have shown that how people live accounts for more than half the difference in how hale and hearty they will remain until very near the end.”

Dr. James E. Fries of Stanford University in 1980 put forth the idea that good health and vigor can be extended well into a person’s 80s, and illness and disability can be compressed into a short period at the end of life.

Many studies have come to a consensus conclusion that genetic factors – such as the amount and proportion of HDL and LDL cholesterol in the blood – account for only about 35 percent of the length of a person’s life. The rest – roughly 65 percent – is determined by environmental factors.

It’s never too late to adopt habits that predict a healthy old age, according to Dr. Richard S. Rivlin, an internist and director of the nutrition and cancer prevention career development program at Weill Cornell College.

“While measures started early in life are most likely to have the greatest health benefit, older people should never feel that turning over a new leaf at their age is anything but highly effective,” he is quoted in Brody’s article.

He said people in their 70s can do a number of things to help prevent hypertension, heart disease, osteoporosis and even cancer. These include restricting calorie intake, limiting saturated fats, replacing simple sugars with fiber-rich whole grains, and eating plenty of high quality protein.

Another very important measure that people in their 70s can take to stay healthy is to make exercise a regular part of their daily lifestyle, including aerobic activities that elevate the heart rate, weight-bearing activities that strengthen muscles and bones, and stretching exercises that reduce stiffness and improve flexibility and balance.

Many long-term studies have pinpointed exercise as the single most potent predictor of healthy longevity, in women as well as men, Brody writes. She concludes: “It’s not that very old people… can exercise because they are healthy, these findings indicate. Rather, they achieve a healthy old age because the exercise.”

Friday, August 1, 2008

What top scientists are learning about memory

For anyone worried about memory loss, here is a book with the greatest title ever: Can’t Remember What I Forgot: The Good News from the Front Lines of Memory Research (Harmony Books, Crown Publishing Group, Random House, 2008) by Sue Halpern.

Halpern’s book is a report on the current state of scientific and medical knowledge about possible preventatives or treatment for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Capturing the subtitle of her book, here is her summary of the state of good news (as of the time she wrote the book):

• The sorLA gene had been discovered, enabling scientists to use a whole new way to explain what was going on in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.
• Thanks to a new imaging technique, amyloid plaques could now be seen in a living brain.
• There was a growing open-source Alzheimer’s gene bank.
• Preliminary data from a Mayo Clinic-University of Southern California study of the Posit Science program had shown that people who completed the training had significant improvements in auditory memory.
• Biomarkers in the blood and cerebral spinal fluid could show Alzheimer’s nearly a decade before there are symptoms.
• Exercise had been shown to cause new brain cells to grow in old brains. That process, neurogenesis, had been shown to improve memory.
• A diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) was not necessarily a “sentence to die from Alzheimer’s.”
• Memory loss in older people was normal.
• The first neural prosthesis, an artificial hippocampus, was close to being tested in living animals.
• The first round of immunizations for Alzheimer’s disease had been completed, no one had gotten sick, and the method of delivery had worked.
• The majority of researchers were working from discoveries that the sticky plaques that had defined Alzheimer’s for years were not the “bad guys,” but that the bad guy was soluble beta-amyloid, which Alzheimer’s patients had in toxic excess. “And while no one yet knew why that was,” she wrote, “the retromer theory put forth by Scott Small and his associates offered a plausible explanation.”

The not-so-good news, at least for me, is what Halpern was finally told after asking many scientists if working crossword puzzles helps stave off dementia or Alzheimer’s.

“You know what crossword puzzles are really good for?” said Dr. Michael Merzenich, professor of integrative neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco, and developer of a computer-based program for children with language-based learning disabilities. “Doing crosswords are really good for… doing crosswords. Do the puzzle every day and you’ll get pretty good at it.”

Unfortunately, Dr. Merzenich concluded, crossword puzzles don’t do anything for memory.

What? You mean remembering that “adit” means “mine opening” doesn’t mean I have a great memory? Rats!