Many people develop Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia as they get older. However, others remain sharp well into old age, even if their brains show underlying signs of neurodegeneration.
Among these cognitively resilient people, researchers have identified education level and amount of time spent on intellectually stimulating activities as factors that help prevent dementia. A new study by MIT researchers shows that this kind of enrichment appears to activate a gene family called MEF2, which controls a genetic program in the brain that promotes resistance to cognitive decline.
The researchers observed this link between MEF2 and cognitive resilience in both humans and mice. The findings suggest that enhancing the activity of MEF2 or its targets might protect against age-related dementia.
“It’s increasingly understood that there are resilience factors that can protect the function of the brain,” says Li-Huei Tsai, director of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. “Understanding this resilience mechanism could be helpful when we think about therapeutic interventions or prevention of cognitive decline and neurodegeneration-associated dementia.”
Tsai is the senior author of the study, which appears today in Science Translational Medicine. The lead authors are recent MIT PhD recipient Scarlett Barker and MIT postdoctoral fellow and Boston Children’s Hospital physician Ravikiran (Ravi) Raju.
A large body of research suggests that environmental stimulation offers some protection against the effects of neurodegeneration. Studies have linked education level, type of job, number of languages spoken, and amount of time spent on activities such as reading and doing crossword puzzles to higher degrees of cognitive resilience.
New research from the Florida State University College of Medicine found that changes in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease are often visible early on in individuals with personality traits associated with the condition.
The study focused on two traits previously linked to the risk of dementia: neuroticism, which measures a predisposition for negative emotions, and conscientiousness, which measures the tendency to be careful, organized, goal-directed and responsible.
“We have done studies showing who’s at risk of developing dementia, but those other studies were looking at the clinical diagnosis,” said Antonio Terracciano, professor of geriatrics at the College of Medicine. “Here, we are looking at the neuropathology; that is, the lesions in the brain that tell us about the underlying pathological change. This study shows that even before clinical dementia, personality predicts the accumulation of pathology associated with dementia.”
Despite my advanced years, with my family’s history of Alzheimer’s and dementia, I confess that anything that affects the brain gets my attention.
A new study suggests athletes with a history of concussion may show more brain injury from a later concussion, particularly in middle regions of the brain that are more susceptible to damage, when compared to athletes with no history of concussion. The research is published in the August 25, 2021, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. The athletes participated in sports like football, volleyball and soccer.
“We know concussions may have long-term effects on the brain that last beyond getting a doctor’s clearance to return to play,” said study author Tom A. Schweizer, PhD, of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, Canada. “It is unclear, however, to what extent the effects of repeated concussion can be detected among young, otherwise healthy adults. We found even though there was no difference in symptoms or the amount of recovery time, athletes with a history of concussion showed subtle and chronic changes in their brains.”
As a sports fan, I have often heard the announcer say of a great athlete, “He can beat anyone but Father Time.” So, it seems with the rest of us non-great-athletes, too.
Who better to talk about the ravages of age than a guy who turns 82 in January?
Here is my perspective: Some 15 years ago I adopted my daughter’s puppy. It had been behaving wildly at her house and I feared that its life with my daughter was going to be cut short. You can read the entire story of my adoption of Gabi in this post I wrote in 2012 – Anatomy of an act of kindness .
So, puppy Gabi is now senior citizen Gabi. At 15 plus years, she qualifies. I know that the “rule of thumb” is one dog year = seven human ones. That would put Gabi at 105 years old, likely circling the drain. Thankfully, a vet explained to me that for a dog Gabi’s size – 11 pounds – the first year is 17 years and each year after that (14 years) is four. So, at 15, Gabi is closer to 77 years old. Just four short of my 81.
Up until the last few years, Gabi weighed just over 12 pounds at her annual physical. Now, however, she is down to a little under 11 pounds. The vet explained that as a senior, she is experiencing sarcopenia – shrinkage of the muscles due to lack of use.
Contrary to what science once suggested, older people with a declining sense of smell do not have comprehensively dampened olfactory ability for odors in general – it simply depends upon the type of odor. Researchers at the University of Copenhagen reached this conclusion after examining a large group of older Danes’ and their intensity perception of common food odors.
That grandpa and grandma aren’t as good at smelling as they once were, is something that many can relate to. And, it has also been scientifically demonstrated. One’s sense of smell gradually begins to decline from about the age of 55. Until now, it was believed that one’s sense of smell broadly declined with increasing age. However, a study from the University of Copenhagen reports that certain food odors are significantly more affected than others.
The Department of Food Science’s Eva Honnens de Lichtenberg Broge and her fellow researchers have tested the ability of older Danes to perceive everyday food odors. The researchers measured how intensely older adults perceived different food odours, as well as how much they liked the odours.
Because of the Alzheimer’s and dementia in my family in previous generations, the subject of any activity that might help (or have helped) my aging brain is high on my list of priorities.
Human DNA – and this also applies to mice – contains thousands of genes. However, it is not only the genetic blueprint that is decisive for the function of a cell and whether it is healthy or not, but above all which genes can be switched on or off. Aging, living conditions and behavior are known to influence this ability to activate genes. The phenomenon, referred to as “epigenetics”, was the focus of the current study. For this, researchers including Dr. Sara Zocher and Prof. Gerd Kempermann examined mice that had grown up in different environments: One group of animals experienced, from a young age, an “enriched” environment with toys and tunnel tubes. The rodents of a second group did not have such occupational opportunities.
Attachments to the DNA
When the scientists examined the genome, they found that in those mice that grew up in the stimulating environment, there was, with age, only a relatively small change in certain chemical tags of the DNA. In mice from the low-stimulus environment, these changes were much more pronounced – in comparison between young and older animals. “We registered so-called methyl groups, which stick to the DNA,” explains Gerd Kempermann, speaker for the DZNE’s Dresden site, DZNE research group leader and also a scientist at the CRTD. “These chemical attachments do not alter the genetic information per se. Rather, they influence whether individual genes can be activated or not.”
Primary care doctors can play an important role in helping to preserve brain health by encouraging healthy behaviors and addressing risk factors associated with cognitive decline, according to a new scientific report.
The American Heart Association statement published in the journal Stroke outlines seven lifestyle targets and six risk factors for brain health that primary care doctors should address in adults of all ages. The statement also has been endorsed by the American Academy of Neurology as an educational tool for neurologists.
As the nation ages, preserving brain health has become a growing concern. Mild cognitive impairment affects an estimated 1 in 5 Americans age 65 and older; 1 in 7 has dementia – a number expected to triple by 2050.
“Primary care is the right home for practice-based efforts to prevent or postpone cognitive decline,” Ronald Lazar, chair of the scientific statement writing group, said in a news release. Lazar directs the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“Prevention doesn’t start in older age; it exists along the health care continuum from pediatrics to adulthood,” he said. “The evidence in this statement demonstrates that early attention to these factors improves later life outcomes.”
The statement asks primary care doctors to integrate brain health into their treatment of adults guided by the AHA’s Life’s Simple 7, a collection of lifestyle targets shown to help achieve ideal heart and brain health. These include managing blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels; increasing physical activity; eating a healthy diet; losing weight; and not smoking.
The statement also asks them to assess their patients’ risk factors for cognitive health, including depression, social isolation, excessive alcohol use, sleep disorders, lower education levels and hearing loss.
“Scientists are learning more about how to prevent cognitive decline before changes to the brain have begun,” Lazar, a professor of neurology and neurobiology, said. “We have compiled the latest research and found Life’s Simple 7 plus other factors like sleep, mental health and education are a more comprehensive lifestyle strategy that optimizes brain health in addition to cardiovascular health.”
Dr. Deborah Levine, one of the statement’s co-authors, said it is never too soon to target risk factors for ideal heart and brain health. It’s also never too late.
“For example, lower blood pressure levels reduce the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia in older adults,” she said. “In adults of all ages, the metrics in Life’s Simple 7 prevent stroke, and stroke increases the risk of dementia by more than twofold.”
Additional risk factors can help physicians identify which patients may need special attention, said Levine, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor.
For example, “Primary care doctors can help their patients reduce dementia risk by identifying and aggressively treating vascular risk factors like high blood pressure. Black and Hispanic individuals, women and individuals with lower educational levels appear at higher risk for dementia, so these high-risk groups are a top priority,” Levine said.
According to the statement, recent research shows high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking in adulthood and midlife increase the odds of cognitive decline in middle age. And they accelerate cognitive decline in older age.
“Many people think of high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and other risk factors as affecting only heart health, yet these very same risk factors affect our brain health,” Lazar said. “Patients might be more likely to pay attention to the importance of addressing modifiable risk factors if they understood the links.”
The statement defines brain health using the term cognition, which includes memory, thinking, reasoning, communication and problem-solving.
Together, these functions enable people to navigate the everyday world, according to the report. The ability to think, solve problems, remember, perceive and communicate are crucial to successful living; their loss can lead to helplessness and dependency.
“Studies have shown that these domains are impacted by factors that are within our control to change,” Lazar said. “Prevention and mitigation are important, because once people have impaired cognition, the current treatment options are very limited.”
Working in the paid labor workforce may have cognitive benefits later in life for U.S. women. For a study supported in part by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), researchers looked at the influence of social, employment, and gender-related factors on memory decline with implications for dementia risk. Their findings, recently published in Neurology, show that women in the workforce during early adulthood and midlife experienced slower rates of memory decline than those who had not worked for pay.
A team of University of California (UC), Los Angeles; UC San Francisco; Harvard; and Boston College researchers analyzed the employment patterns, family structure, and demographic characteristics of U.S. women. More than 6,000 women at least age 55 in the Health and Retirement Study reported their past work-family statuses of employment, marriage, and parenthood between ages 16 and 50. They also participated in word recall memory assessments every two years over an average of 12 years. The study team then evaluated rates of later-life memory decline, which is a measure associated with dementia.
The average rate of memory decline after age 60 was slower for women who had worked, regardless of marriage and parenthood status. Taking time off from work when their children were young did not seem to decrease the cognitive benefit in married working mothers. Among nonworking mothers, rates of memory decline were similar for single and married women. Demographic characteristics, such as race, childhood socioeconomic status, and level of education, did not explain the relationship between work-family status and memory decline.
This study adds to evidence that participation in the workforce may be a protective factor for cognitive health later in life. The researchers did not look at volunteer work, the types of paid labor among women, or possible differences among genders. Future research on effects of participating in the workforce, such as cognitive stimulation and social engagement, may help explain how employment can decrease the rate of memory loss.
The brain controls many aspects of thinking — remembering, planning and organizing, making decisions, and much more. These cognitive abilities affect how well we do everyday tasks and whether we can live independently.
Some changes in thinking are common as people get older. For example, older adults may:
Be slower to find words and recall names
Find they have more problems with multitasking
Experience mild decreases in the ability to pay attention
Aging may also bring positive cognitive changes. For example, many studies have shown that older adults have more extensive vocabularies and greater knowledge of the depth of meaning of words than younger adults. Older adults may also have learned from a lifetime of accumulated knowledge and experiences. Whether and how older adults apply this accumulated knowledge, and how the brain changes as a result, is an area of active exploration by researchers.
A new analysis published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest (PSPI), however, reveals that even though a more extensive formal education forestalls the more obvious signs of age-related cognitive deficits, it does not lessen the rate of aging-related cognitive declines. Instead, people who have gone further in school attain, on average, a higher level of cognitive function in early and middle adult adulthood, so the initial effects of cognitive aging are initially less obvious and the most severe impairments manifest later than they otherwise would have.
“The total amount of formal education that people receive is related to their average levels of cognitive functioning throughout adulthood,” said Elliot M. Tucker-Drob, a researcher with the University of Texas, Austin, and coauthor on the paper. “However, it is not appreciably related to their rates of aging-related cognitive declines.”Continue reading →
Cognitive decline is a major concern of the aging population. Already, Alzheimer’s disease affects approximately 5.4 million Americans and 30 million people globally. Without effective prevention and treatment, the prospects for the future are bleak. By 2050, it is estimated that 160 million people globally will have the disease, including 13 million Americans, leading to potential bankruptcy of the Medicare system. Unlike several other chronic illnesses, Alzheimer’s disease is on the rise–recent estimates suggest that Alzheimer’s disease has become the third leading cause of death in the United States behind cardiovascular disease and cancer. Since its first description over 100 years ago, Alzheimer’s disease has been without effective treatment.
While researchers continue to seek out a cure, it is becoming clear that there are effective treatment options. More and more research supports the conclusion that Alzheimer’s disease is not a disease of only Beta Amyloid plaques and Tao tangles but a complex and systemic disease. In this study of patients with varying levels of cognitive decline, it is demonstrated how a precision and personalized approach results in either stabilization or improvement in memory.
Affirmativ Health sought to determine whether a comprehensive and personalized program, designed to mitigate risk factors of Alzheimer’s disease could improve cognitive and metabolic function in individuals experiencing cognitive decline. Findings provided evidence that this approach can improve risk factor scores and stabilize cognitive function.
People with lower household wealth (or socioeconomic status) have a higher risk of many diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and depression. They also have shorter lifespans. Some lifestyle factors may play a role. For example, people with lower incomes have higher rates of smoking. However, other factors—including chronic stress and reduced access to resources—also likely contribute, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA).
Less is known about how socioeconomic status influences the general aging process. To look more closely at this question, Drs. Andrew Steptoe and Paola Zaninotto from University College London followed more than 5,000 adults, aged 52 and older, for 8 years beginning in 2004. The team broke the study participants into four groups based on household wealth. Continue reading →
Do you know that feeling you get in your gut? It turns out your gut may really be trying to tell you something. Our microbiome – the 100 trillion bacteria and organisms living in our gut – appears to have a profound influence on our health and risk of disease. And early scientific studies show there may be a link between the microbiome and the brain that could impact the risk of Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases.
The microbiome is a collection of bacteria, viruses and fungi that live mostly in our intestinal system. They play an important role in digestion and the production of certain vitamins, and they support our immune system. Researchers around the world study the gut microbiome, especially those bacteria unique to individuals, to learn more about their influence on our overall health.
It’s never too late to lace up some sneakers and work up a sweat for brain health, according to a study published in the May 13, 2020, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. The study suggests older adults, even couch potatoes, may perform better on certain thinking and memory tests after just six months of aerobic exercise.
“As we all find out eventually, we lose a bit mentally and physically as we age. But even if you start an exercise program later in life, the benefit to your brain may be immense,” said study author Marc J. Poulin, Ph.D., D.Phil., from the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. “Sure, aerobic exercise gets blood moving through your body. As our study found, it may also get blood moving to your brain, particularly in areas responsible for verbal fluency and executive functions. Our finding may be important, especially for older adults at risk for Alzheimer’s and other dementias and brain disease.”
With more than 30 million Americans diagnosed with diabetes, and another 87 million diagnosed with obesity, both conditions have become national epidemics.
The two diseases cause a number of complications, including neuropathy, which causes damage to the peripheral nerves. Neuropathy is characterized by numbness or tingling and can sometimes be accompanied by pain.
By the time people reach a certain age, they’ve accumulated enough life experience to have plenty of stories to tell about life “back in their day.”
However, a new study suggests that the older a person is, the less likely they are to share memories of their past experiences. And when they do share memories, they don’t describe them in as much detail as younger people do.
The results of the study, conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona and published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, echo previous findings from lab-based research suggesting that memory sharing declines with age.
The UArizona study came to the conclusion in a new way: by “eavesdropping” on older adults’ conversations “in the wild.”