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Smoking Turns Brain into Aged Butt Head

Sure, we all know that the human brain normally gets smaller as one ages (or as one enters politics, for that matter). But is "passage of time" the worse case scenario for dwindling dendrites. No. Those who age AND smoke are actually EXCELERATING the aging of their brains. You might say a smoker's brain gets transformed into an aged butt head. At first thought, an impossibility. Especially when you consider that anyone who smokes these days apparently doesn't have a brain in their head to begin with. But that only goes to show you that the mysteries of modern science still elude the masses. That's why the findings of a new study reported in this month's issue of Stroke have come at just the right time. Stroke is the official journal of the American Heart Association.

In the study, elderly men with high blood pressure who also smoked were found to speed up the aging of their brains and increase their risk of stroke in late life. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to paint a detailed picture of the brain in later life, scientists were able to show that conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and increased alcohol consumption are, literally, good predictors of the shape of a personís brain as he or she ages. Charles DeCarli, M.D., author of the study, sponsored by the National, Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, says the new findings are part of a growing body of evidence that suggests that health behavior in mid-life can make a difference in how individuals function when they are in their 70s.

Normally, as people age, their brains get smaller, and the "white matter," which is a type of nerve tissue in the brain, becomes damaged with age and the brain becomes smaller. These changes are associated with a decline in mental function," says DeCarli, associate professor of neurology and director of the Alzheimer's Disease Center at the University of Kansas. But risk factors like high blood pressure and smoking accelerate the aging process, says DeCarli.

DeCarli used MRI, an imaging technique that can make fine, cross-sectioned pictures of the brain, to study the size and shape of the organ and look for evidence of stroke and brain aging in a long-studied group of men now entering late life. The men in the study were examined on four occasions between 1969 and 1997. In the last examination in 1997, the men, whose ages then averaged 72 years, were scanned with MRI to determine brain volume or size, changes in white matter, and evidence of stroke. Those who smoked and consumed alcohol did not fare well. In addition, if they also had hypertension and diabetes, they fared worse.

"MRI tells us about the continuum of brain disease," says DiCarli. "We can get a picture of the brain that shows problems that may not yet have visible symptoms." For example, "silent strokes" occur in the small blood vessels of the brain. They are called silent strokes because there are no visible signs of stroke. But signs are evident from MRI scans, says DeCarli. "Most of the conditions associated with stroke, thinned nerve tissue and reduced brain volume, we can identify with MRI. And our findings show that people at risk for these problems have many mid-life risk factors."

Here's the point. A comment attributed to Woody Allen seems to sum it all up. "If you want to live a long life, you must give up all the things that make a long life worth living".
See related articles in the AgeVenture archives.
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Cataracts May Be Driven By Antioxidants

Ophthalmologists may be able to use blood tests to identify individuals who are at greater risk to develop age-related eye problems such as cataracts and advanced-stage macular degeneration. That's because for the first time, researchers have linked high blood levels of antioxidant enzymes with an increased risk to those eye diseases. In the February issue of the American Academy of Ophthalmology's journal, ophthalmology, French researchers report the risk of cataracts increases by six times, and for late-stage macular degeneration by nine times, when levels of glutathione peroxidase (that's the enzyme mentioned above, folks) rise in the blood circulation. Elevated levels of this antioxidant enzyme appear to be a defensive response to increased levels of oxidation within the body.

Cataracts are a clouding of the naturally clear focusing lens of the eye, which usually occur with advanced age and can cause symptoms such as sun glare, night glare from oncoming auto headlights, need for brighter home lighting, diminished color vision (blues and violets) and other symptoms. Cataracts form in the eyes of about two out of three adults by the age of 60, though only about 3-4 percent of older adults require cataract removal at any given time. But with a population of more than 36 million retirees, nearly 1.5 million cataract operations are performed annually in the U.S. Cataracts and lens implant operations are among the safest and most efficacious of all surgical procedures, resulting in improved sight in better than 95 percent of cases.

Macular degeneration affects the central retina or visual center of the eye and results in loss of central vision used for reading, color vision and recognizing faces. The advanced form of macular degeneration involves deterioration, leakage or abnormal growth of blood vessels at the back of the eye. Currently, laser treatment for advanced-stage macular degeneration does not address the cause of the disease and is only effective in delaying its progression.

The public is more familiar with antioxidants consumed from the diet, such as Vitamin C, Vitamin E and carotenoids (beta carotene, lutein), which are a secondary line of defense for living tissues against premature aging and disease. Antioxidant enzymes, such as catalase and superoxide dismutase, are produced naturally within the body from minerals such as zinc, copper and manganese, and represent the first-line of defense against oxidation, a destructive process promoted by sunlight, excessive levels of iron and copper, infections or other factors. Study authors are optimistic about the findings because the increased level of the enzyme appears to be one of the strongest indicators of cataract and late macular degeneration. Those results may lead to the enzyme blood test as an efffective method of diagnosis.
See related articles in the AgeVenture archives.
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Seniors Volunteer for Longer Life

A little volunteering can prolong your life say researchers at the University of Michigan. Seniors who spend less than an hour a week volunteering are helping themselves as well as others.

The study documents the link between moderate levels of volunteer activity and increased chances of survival. "Quite a few people assume that older volunteers should benefit in terms of better health and well-being," says Marc A. Musick, a research fellow at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and first author of the study. "This study is one of the first to document that's true in a nationally representative sample of older Americans." It's also among the first to establish that people live longer because they volunteer, rather than that people volunteer because they're healthier and hence more likely to live longer.

Researchers found that seniors who volunteered for a total of less than 40 hours over the past year were less likely to die over the next seven-and-a-half years than those who didn't volunteer at all. Volunteering for a greater number of hours did not reduce the likelihood of death, and even tended to increase it. Musick believes that for seniors, "taking on too much volunteer activity may incur just enough detriments to offset the potential beneficial effects of volunteering."

Musick and colleagues also found that the protective effects of volunteering were strongest among older men and women who had low levels of social interaction, seldom seeing or talking to anyone other than their spouses or the person with whom they lived. One explanation for these findings may be that volunteering provides meaning and purpose in people's lives. Such qualities may in turn have protective effects on mortality and other health outcomes.

The research was funded by grants from the National Institute on Aging,National Institutes of Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Michigan Exploratory Center for the Demography of Aging.
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Doctors Cure Fear of Hospitalization

Hospitals may be able to reduce the number and duration of sudden episodes of delirium in at-risk older patients by using a new clinical approach, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine. The study, conducted at Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut, studied the prevention of delirium, a common problem among hospitalized older adults that often leads to complications and death. The Yale study improved the elders' cognition, reduced their need for sedative drugs for sleep, and increased mobility, vision, and hearing.

In the study, 852 participants, age 70-plus, were divided into two groups: those receiving usual, standard hospital care or those receiving care under a multidisciplinary team of specialists, including staff nurses, nurse specialists, recreational therapists, physical therapists, geriatricians, and trained volunteers. Patients receiving the multicomponent approach experienced fewer episodes and a reduction in the number of days of delirium. However, the intervention did not affect either the duration of hospital stay or the rate of readmission.

Study investigators found the significant benefits of the team approach by targeting patients with one or more of six risk factors for delirium, including cognitive impairment, sleep deprivation, immobility, dehydration, or impaired vision or hearing. To address these risk factors, care-team members used interventions such as: "This study of delirium shows the consequence of not following best practices like making sure patients wear their glasses and hearing aids, making sure they get enough water to drink, enough sleep, and exercise for mobility," says Neil Buckholtz, Ph.D., Chief of the NIA's Dementia Branch. The total cost of the Yale program, called the Elder Life Program, was $139,506, or $327 per patient. "In addition, a low-tech intervention of this type might make adult hospitalization a less frightening experience for patients." The National Institute on Aging funded the study.
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Memory Loss May Be All In Your Head

One's brain does change with age, says Steven Lamm, MD, in the current issue of New Choices magazine. But it's a mistake to "link common memory declines to the nightmarish approach of dementia or early signs of alzheimer's disease". Though memory lapses are common for people over age 50, it does not mean their memory is failing. It just takes them a bit longer to come up with the information.

Why memory falters is still a mystery, says Lamm. Age-related memory losses can be caused by anxiety, depression, grief, undetected hearing loss, unrecognized changes in vision, and poor nutrition. Certain medications, everyday stress, untreated high blood pressure, and excessive alcohol use, also contribute to poor memory. Or it may be that you just notice your shortcomings more as you get older.

Dr. Lamm offers the following suggestions on how to improve your ability to remember daily transactions. See related articles in the AgeVenture archives.
Keeping Mature Minds Mentally Alert
Hypertension May Erode Mental Functioning
Monitoring Medicines Makes You Unforgettable
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