Posts Tagged Alzheimer’s

Cocoa May Slow Cognitive Impairment of Aging


Cocoa May Slow Cognitive Impairment of AgingIf there is a more pleasurable way of staving off the cognitive impairment of aging than drinking cocoa, perhaps only red wine drinkers have found it.

Flavanols are naturally occurring antioxidants found in abundance in cocoa plants. They help the body deal with free radicals that trigger negative changes in body chemistry and help prevent blood clots.

Now, a new study led by Giovambattista Desideri, M.D., study lead author and associate professor of internal medicine and public health at the University of L’Aquila in Italy, suggests ingesting cocoa flavanols daily may improve mild cognitive impairment.

Experts say that more than six percent of people aged 70 years or older develop mild cognitive impairment (MCI) annually. Moreover, MCI can progress to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers say flavanols may aid brain health by protecting neurons from injury, enhancing metabolism, and facilitating neuronal interaction with the molecular structures responsible for memory. They are also found in tea, grapes, red wine and apples and have been associated with a decreased risk of dementia.

Indirectly, flavanols may help by improving brain blood flow.

In the study, 90 elderly participants with mild cognitive impairment were randomized to drink daily either 990 milligrams (high), 520 mg (intermediate) or 45 mg (low) of a dairy-based cocoa flavanol drink for eight weeks.

Researchers controlled participants’ diet to eliminate other sources of flavanols from foods and beverages other than the dairy-based cocoa drink.

Cognitive function was examined by neuropsychological tests of executive function, working memory, short-term memory, long-term episodic memory, processing speed and global cognition.

Researchers found:

  • Scores significantly improved in the ability to relate visual stimuli to motor responses, working memory, task-switching and verbal memory for those drinking the high and intermediate flavanol drinks;
  • Participants drinking daily higher levels of flavanol drinks had significantly higher overall cognitive scores than those participants drinking lower-levels;
  • Insulin resistance, blood pressure and oxidative stress also decreased in those drinking high and intermediate levels of flavanols daily. Changes in insulin resistance explained about 40 percent of the composite scores for improvements in cognitive functioning.

“This study provides encouraging evidence that consuming cocoa flavanols, as a part of a calorie-controlled and nutritionally-balanced diet, could improve cognitive function,” Desideri said. However, he warns that the beneficial findings may have been influenced by a variety of factors.

“The positive effect on cognitive function may be mainly mediated (influenced) by an improvement in insulin sensitivity. It is yet unclear whether these benefits in cognition are a direct consequence of cocoa flavanols or a secondary effect of general improvements in cardiovascular function.”

Furthermore, the study population was generally in good health without known cardiovascular disease. Thus, it would not be completely representative of all mild cognitive impairment patients.

In addition, only some clinical features of mild cognitive impairment were explored in the study.

“Given the global rise in cognitive disorders, which have a true impact on an individual’s quality of life, the role of cocoa flavanols in preventing or slowing the progression of mild cognitive impairment to dementia warrants further research,” Desideri said.

“Larger studies are needed to validate the findings, figure out how long the positive effects will last and determine the levels of cocoa flavanols required for benefit.”

The research is reported in the American Heart Association’s journal Hypertension.

Source: American Heart Association

Woman drinking cocoa photo by shutterstock.

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Why We Can’t Live in the Moment


Why We Can't Live in the MomentThe sought-after ideal of “living in the moment” may be impossible, according to research conducted at the University of Pittsburgh, which pinpoints an area of the brain responsible for using past decisions and outcomes to guide future behavior.

The study analyzes signals associated with metacognition, which is a person’s ability to monitor and control cognition — a term described by the researchers as “thinking about thinking.”

“The brain has to keep track of decisions and the outcomes they produce,” said Marc Sommer, Ph.D., who did his research for the study as a University of Pittsburgh neuroscience faculty member and is now on the faculty at Duke University. “You need that continuity of thought. We are constantly keeping decisions in mind as we move through life, thinking about other things.”

Sommer said the researchers “guessed it was analogous to working memory,” which led them to predict that neuronal correlates of metacognition resided in the same brain areas responsible for cognition, including the frontal cortex, a part of the brain linked with personality expression, decision making, and social behavior.

The research team studied single neurons in three frontal cortical regions of the brain: The frontal eye field, associated with visual attention and eye movements; the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for motor planning, organization, and regulation; and the supplementary eye field (SEF), which is involved in the planning and control of saccadic eye movements, which are the extremely fast movements of the eye that allow it to continually refocus on an object.

Study participants were asked to perform a visual decision-making task that involved random flashing lights and a dominant light on a cardboard square. They were asked to remember and pinpoint where the dominant light appeared, guessing whether they were correct. The researchers found that while neural activity correlated with decisions and guesses in all three brain areas, the metacognitive activity that linked decisions to bets resided exclusively in the SEF.

“The SEF is a complex area linked with motivational aspects of behavior,” said Sommer. “If we think we’re going to receive something good, neuronal activity tends to be high in SEF. People want good things in life, and to keep getting those good things, they have to compare what’s going on now versus the decisions made in the past.”

Sommer said he sees his research as one step in a systematic process of working toward a better understanding of consciousness. By studying metacognition, he says, he reduces the big problem of studying a “train of thought” into a simpler component: Examining how one cognitive process influences another.

“Why aren’t our thoughts independent of each other? Why don’t we just live in the moment? For a healthy person, it’s impossible to live in the moment. It’s a nice thing to say in terms of seizing the day and enjoying life, but our inner lives and experiences are much richer than that.”

The scientist said that patients with mental disorders have not been tested on these tasks, but added he is interested to see how SEF and other brain areas might be disrupted in people with these disorders.

“With schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease, there is a fracturing of the thought process,” he said. “It is constantly disrupted, and despite trying to keep a thought going, one is distracted very easily. Patients with these disorders have trouble sustaining a memory of past decisions to guide later behavior, suggesting a problem with metacognition.”

The study was published in the  journal Neuron.

Source: University of Pittsburgh

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Alzheimer’s More Aggressive in Younger Elderly


Alzheimers More Aggressive in Younger Elderly New research shows that Alzheimer’s disease hits people in their 60s and 70s harder than people who are 80 years and older.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine note that the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s is age. In fact, by the age of 85, the likelihood of developing the dreaded neurological disorder is roughly 50 percent, they say.

But in their study, they found that the “younger elderly” — those in their 60s and 70s — showed higher rates of cognitive decline and faster rates of tissue loss in brain regions that are vulnerable during the early stages of Alzheimer’s, according to Dominic Holland, Ph.D., a researcher in the Department of Neurosciences at UC San Diego and the study’s first author.

“Additionally cerebrospinal fluid biomarker levels indicate a greater disease burden in younger than in older individuals,” he said.

Holland and his colleagues, using imaging and biomarker data from participants in the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, examined 723 people, ages 65 to 90 years, who were categorized as either cognitively normal, with mild cognitive impairment (an intermediate stage between normal, age-related cognitive decline and dementia) or suffering from full-blown Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

The findings have implications for diagnosing the disease — which currently afflicts an estimated 5.6 million Americans, a number expected to triple by 2050 — and efforts to find new treatments, the researchers said.

At present, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s and existing therapies do not slow or stop the disease’s progression.

A key feature in the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is its “relentless progressive course,” Holland said.

“Patients typically show marked deterioration year after year. If older patients are not showing the same deterioration from one year to the next, doctors may be hesitant to diagnose AD, and thus these patients may not receive appropriate care, which can be very important for their quality of life.”

Holland said it’s not clear why the disease is more aggressive among the younger elderly.

“It may be that patients who show onset of dementia at an older age, and are declining slowly, have been declining at that rate for a long time,” added co-author Linda McEvoy, Ph.D., associate professor of radiology. “But because of cognitive reserve or other still-unknown factors that provide ‘resistance’ against brain damage, clinical symptoms do not manifest till later age.”

Another possibility is that older patients may be suffering from mixed dementia — a combination of Alzheimer’s and other neurological conditions, Holland said. These patients might withstand the effects of Alzheimer’s until other adverse factors, such as brain lesions caused by cerebrovascular disease, take hold. At that time, Alzheimer’s can only be definitively diagnosed by an autopsy, he said.

Clinical trials to find new treatments for the disease may be affected by the differing rates of progression, researchers said.

“Our results show that if clinical trials of candidate therapies predominately enroll older elderly, who show slower rates of change over time, the ability of a therapy to successfully slow disease progression may not be recognized, leading to failure of the clinical trial,” said Holland. “It’s critical to take into account age as a factor when enrolling subjects for AD clinical trials.”

While the obvious downside of the findings is that younger patients with Alzheimer’s lose more of their productive years, “the good news in all of this is that our results indicate those who survive into the later years before showing symptoms of AD will experience a less aggressive form of the disease,” Holland concluded.

The research appears online in the journal PLOS One.

Source: University of California, San Diego

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Mindfulness Practice Helps Seniors Combat Loneliness


Mindfulness Practice Helps Elders Combat LonelinessLoneliness can be a major risk factor for health conditions such as depression, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s. It is especially problematic among seniors, for whom seclusion and isolation may even lead to death.

Experts say that modern strategies to reduce loneliness in the elderly population — by participation in social networking programs in community centers — have not been successful. But a new study finds that a new/old approach may provide an innovative solution.

In the investigation, J. David Creswell, Ph.D., from Carnegie Mellon University looked at the use of mindfulness meditation to reduce loneliness in older adults.

In the review, researchers found that mindfulness meditation — a 2,500-year-old practice dating back to Buddha that focuses on creating an attentive awareness of the present moment — not only reduced loneliness but also lowered inflammation levels.

Inflammation is believed to promote the development and progression of many diseases.

These findings, published in Brain, Behavior & Immunity, provide valuable insights into how mindfulness meditation training can be used as a novel approach for reducing loneliness and the risk of disease in older adults.

“We always tell people to quit smoking for health reasons, but rarely do we think about loneliness in the same way,” said Creswell.

“We know that loneliness is a major risk factor for health problems and mortality in older adults. This research suggests that mindfulness meditation training is a promising intervention for improving the health of older adults.”

For the study, the research team recruited 40 healthy adults aged 55-85 who indicated an interest in learning mindfulness meditation techniques. Each person was assessed at the beginning and end of the study using an established loneliness scale. Blood samples also were collected.

The participants were randomly assigned to receive either the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program or no treatment.

The MBSR program consisted of weekly two-hour meetings in which participants learned body awareness techniques — noticing sensations and working on breathing — and worked their way toward understanding how to mindfully attend to their emotions and daily life practices.

They also were asked to practice mindfulness meditation exercises for 30 minutes each day at home and attended a daylong retreat.

Investigators determined that eight weeks of the mindfulness meditation training decreased the participants’ loneliness.

They also discovered that participants reduced genetic blood inflammatory responses as well as a measure of C-Reactive Protein (CRP).

These findings suggest that mindfulness meditation training may reduce older adults’ inflammatory disease risk.

“Reductions in the expression of inflammation-related genes were particularly significant because inflammation contributes to a wide variety of the health threats including cancer, cardiovascular diseases and neurodegenerative diseases,” said study collaborator Steven Cole.

While the health effects of the observed gene expression changes were not directly measured in the study, Cole noted that “these results provide some of the first indications that immune cell gene expression profiles can be modulated by a psychological intervention.”

Creswell added that while this research suggests a promising new approach for treating loneliness and inflammatory disease risk in older adults, more work needs to be done.

“If you’re interested in using mindfulness meditation, find an instructor in your city,” he said. “It’s important to train your mind like you train your biceps in the gym.”

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

Elderly woman meditating photo by shutterstock.

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