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Mature Focus: June 7

Brain boost

In a recent study, seniors who drank blueberry concentrate showed significant improvements in several areas of brain function. [Shutterstock photo]

Blueberries are a known “superfood,” delivering significant amounts of disease-fighting antioxidants, fiber and vitamin C. Recently, another item was added to the list of blueberries’ potential health benefits by researchers at the University of Exeter in England, where a small study connected drinking concentrated blueberry juice with improvements in brain function for older people.

In the study, 26 healthy people aged 65-77 either drank about an ounce of concentrated blueberry juice every day for 12 weeks or were given a placebo. The concentrate delivered the equivalent of just over 8 ounces of blueberries. People who ate more than five portions of fruits and vegetables were excluded from the research, and study participants were told to stick to their normal diets throughout. Before and after the 12-week period, participants took a range of cognitive tests while an MRI scanner monitored their brain function, and their resting brain blood flow also was measured.

The researchers claimed that, compared to the placebo group, seniors who drank the blueberry concentrate showed significant improvements in several areas of brain function. Dr. Joanna Bowtell, who led the research, said, “Our cognitive function tends to decline as we get older, but previous research has shown that cognitive function is better preserved in healthy older adults with a diet rich in plant-based foods. In this study we have shown that with just 12 weeks of consuming 30 milliliters of concentrated blueberry juice every day, brain blood flow, brain activation and some aspects of working memory were improved in this group of healthy older adults.”

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Brain research currently being conducted at Northwestern University involves “SuperAgers,” people over the age of 80 whose memories have retained the sharpness of people decades younger. A recent 18-month study examined the brains of 24 SuperAgers, comparing them to a control group of 12 of their more typically aging peers. The researchers took MRI images of their brains to measure the thickness of the brain cortex of both groups, before and after the study period.

They found that the SuperAgers lost brain volume at half the rate of average seniors: the annual percent decline in cortical thickness between the first and second visit for the SuperAgers was 1.06, compared to 2.24 for the control group.

“We found that SuperAgers are resistant to the normal rate of decline that we see in average elderly, and they’re managing to strike a balance between lifespan and health span, really living well and enjoying their later years of life,” said senior author Emily Rogalski, associate professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center [CNADC] at Northwestern.

The study findings were published in JAMA; Rogalski also presented the results at the 2017 Cognitive Aging Summit in Bethesda, Maryland. Previous research has shown that SuperAgers have a thicker cerebral cortex than people who age normally; so by studying what makes SuperAgers unique, Rogalski said, scientists hope to undercover biological factors that may contribute to the maintenance of memory ability in seniors.


Sound sleep

A type of gentle sound stimulation during sleep can improve seniors’ memory skills, according to a new study.

Starting in middle age, most adults get far less deep sleep, or “slow-wave” sleep, which is extremely important for memory consolidation. Scientists believe that this steep decline in deep sleep contributes to age-related memory loss. New research conducted at Northwestern University recently showed that gentle sound stimulation, such as the rush of a waterfall, which is synchronized with brain waves can enhance deep sleep in older adults, improving their recall ability.

During deep sleep, brain wave oscillations slow down to about one per second, compared to about 10 per second while a person is awake. The Northwestern study used a new approach, an algorithm that can read an individual’s brain waves in real time and deliver the sound during the rising portion of slow-wave oscillations. In the study, 13 participants aged 60 and older received one night of slow-wave acoustic stimulation and one night of “sham” stimulation, which was identical to the acoustic one, but participants did not hear any noise during sleep. Those in both groups took a memory test at night and another the next morning. Recall ability after the sham stimulation generally improved on the morning test by a few percentage points; but among those who received the acoustic stimulation, memory improvements were three times greater. After the sound stimulation, the older participants’ slow waves also increased during sleep.

“This is an innovative, simple and safe non-medication approach that may help improve brain health,” said Dr. Phyllis Zee, the study’s senior author and a professor of neurology at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “This is a potential tool for enhancing memory in older populations and attenuating normal age-related memory decline.”

The researchers’ eventual goal is to develop sound stimulation technology that can be used in the home. The study results were published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.


Hormone therapy updates

Results of recent studies on hormone replacement therapy are noteworthy for seniors of both sexes. First, studies involving men ages 65 and older with low testosterone that have been ongoing at 12 different sites across the U.S. – known as the “T Trials” – recently reported that a year of supplemental testosterone treatment improved men’s bone density and corrected anemia of both known and unknown causes. However, men who had the hormone treatment also showed an increased volume of coronary artery plaque, a significant risk factor for heart disease. The study showed no significant effects on memory or other cognitive functions, another recently studied area.

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For older women, hormone replacement therapy to relieve menopausal symptoms has been a controversial topic for years, as different studies have associated it both with health benefits and potential risks, including cancer and stroke. Fear about those risks has led to a dramatic decline in the number of women using hormone replacement therapy over the past 15 years. But a new study conducted at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center showed that women using hormone replacement therapy had a significantly lower risk of death along with lower levels of atherosclerosis [the buildup of plaque in heart arteries] compared to women not using hormone therapy.

After accounting for the participants’ ages, coronary calcium scores and cardiovascular risk factors including diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, the study found that women using hormone replacement therapy were overall 30 percent less likely to die than those not on hormone therapy. They were also 20 percent more likely to have a coronary calcium score of zero – the lowest possible score, which indicates a low probability of having a heart attack – and 36 percent less likely to have a coronary calcium score above 399, which indicates severe atherosclerosis and high heart attack risk. According to the research team, those results are evidence that estrogen replacement therapy, sometimes along with progesterone or similar hormones, may help improve women’s heart health and overall survival.


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