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Mature Focus: Jan. 10

No accurate test of aging

Whether it’s by taking a simple online quiz or spending hundreds of dollars on chromosome or blood testing, many people passing through midlife into their senior years are attempting to find out whether they are aging faster or slower than their chronological ages would suggest. Unfortunately, though, a recent analysis of these tests shows that their results may not provide accurate information.

A head-to-head comparison of different measures of aging in the body, including blood and chromosome tests like those being sold commercially, has found that they significantly disagree on the aging speed of the person being tested. This comparison was based on a lifetime study of about 1,000 Dunedin, New Zealand residents who have been studied extensively from birth to age 38.

Researchers from Duke University working with data from these study participants had theorized that a panel of 18 biological measures might be used to predict their pace of aging, based on how those measures had changed from age 26 to 38 in a specific individual. However, when they looked at whether the 18 indicators could accurately show the participants’ aging speed at 38, the results often were contradictory.

“People age at different rates, and geriatric medicine needs a way to measure that,” said lead author Daniel Belsky, an assistant professor of population health sciences at Duke. “But when measuring all sorts of different aspects of a person’s physiology, from genes to blood markers to balance and grip strength, you see a lot of disagreement. Based on these results, I’d say it’s premature to market aging tests to the public.”

For comparisons, the researchers looked at physical markers of aging collected from the Dunedin study group, including balance, grip, motor coordination, physical limitations, cognitive function and decline, self-reported health and facial aging as judged by others. They compared these markers with measurements of the length of telomeres – protective caps of DNA at the end of chromosomes that unravel over time and are known to protect cells from aging – but found no evidence of the ability to predict physical or cognitive changes, except possibly facial aging, Belsky said.

The research team also examined genetic tests of the participants to see changes in the patterns of DNA over time. These patterns are thought to function like clocks as a way to measure an individual’s rate of aging.  Although the researchers found the expected 12 years of progress in the participants between ages 26 and 38, “the clocks were less clearly related to changes in people’s physiology or problems with physical or cognitive performance,” Belsky said. “That raises questions about whether they could be used to survey patients or populations to predict health span.”

An analysis of physiological measures, including blood markers and tests of heart and lung function, found a somewhat stronger correlation with actual aging rates; however, none of the measures they studied performed well enough to accurately predict aging rate, the researchers concluded.

Belsky said the search will continue for reliably accurate tests of aging. As scientists investigate treatments to slow the aging process, “we’d like to know in less than 30 years whether the treatment works,” he added.

The study findings were published last November in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Super Mario for super seniors?

People between the ages of 55 and 75 may want to try playing 3D video games, such as Super Mario 64, to prevent mild cognitive impairment and perhaps even Alzheimer’s disease, according to a recent Canadian study.

Researchers from the University of Montreal had previously conducted studies which showed that young adults in their twenties who regularly played 3D video games of logic and puzzles, on platforms like Super Mario 64, showed increased gray matter in the hippocampus area of their brains over time. The team wanted to see if those results could be duplicated among healthy seniors.

The hippocampus is the brain region primarily associated with spatial and episodic memory, which is key to long-term cognitive health. A declining amount of gray matter in the hippocampus is an indicator of neurological disorders that occur with aging, including cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s.

The research team recruited 33 people, ages 55 to 75, and randomly assigned them to three groups. The first group played Super Mario 64 for 30 minutes a day, five days a week for six months; the second group took piano lessons for the same amount of time; and the third group did not perform any specific task. Participants were evaluated at the beginning and at the end of the experiment, as well as six months later, using two different measurements: cognitive performance tests and magnetic resonance imaging [MRI] testing of their brains to measure variations in gray matter volume.

According to the MRI test results, only the participants who played Super Mario 64 saw increases in gray matter volume in both the hippocampus and cerebellum. Their short-term memory improved as well. Those who took piano lessons showed gray matter increases in the cerebellum, but not the hippocampus.  The third group showed some brain atrophy in both areas.

Why did playing 3D video games lead to increases in gray matter?  “Video games engage the hippocampus into creating a cognitive map, or a mental representation, of the virtual environment that the brain is exploring,” said Gregory West, a University of Montreal psychology professor and one of the study’s leaders. “Several studies suggest stimulation of the hippocampus increases both functional activity and gray matter within this region.”

When the brain is not learning new things, gray matter atrophies as people age, West explained. “The good news is that we can reverse those effects and increase volume by learning something new, and games like Super Mario 64, which activate the hippocampus, seem to hold some potential in that respect. These findings can also be used to drive future research on Alzheimer’s, since there is a link between the volume of the hippocampus and the risk of developing the disease,” he added.

The study results were published in PLOS One.

Fewer fractures

If more older women participated in community screenings for osteoporosis, more than a quarter of hip fractures in those women might be prevented, according to a recent study. The research, which involved more than 12,000 older women in the U.K. and was recently published in The Lancet, found that screening through general physician practices using a simple questionnaire, along with bone density testing, identified patients who should be targeted for treatment. For women who agreed to participate, this screening produced a 28 percent reduction in hip fractures over five years.

The large, multi-center study was a collaboration between several British universities and over 100 primary care practices. The researchers used a tool called FRAX, developed at the University of Sheffield, which predicts the probability of a hip fracture or other major osteoporotic fracture [fractures of the spine, upper arm or lower arm in addition to the hip], to identify older women at high risk.

A total of 12,483 women between the ages of 70 and 85 were recruited for the study. Half of the women were screened for osteoporosis, to compare screening with routine care. Among those who received screening, one in seven study participants was determined to be at high risk of hip fracture, and subsequently recommended for treatment. More than three-fourths of the women in this high-risk group were taking osteoporosis medications within six months of screening.

While screening did not reduce the incidence of all osteoporosis-related fractures, there was strong evidence for a reduction in hip fractures through the screening program: compared to the routine care group, there were 54 fewer women in the screening group who suffered one or more hip fractures.

“Approximately one in three women and one in five men aged over 50 years will suffer a fragility fracture during their remaining lifetime,” said lead researcher Professor Lee Shepstone, from Norwich Medical School at the University of East Anglia. “A hip fracture can be devastating, with loss of independence and less than one-third of patients making a full recovery. Mortality at one year post-fracture is approximately 20 percent.

“This is the first trial to show that a community-screening approach based on the FRAX fracture risk tool is both feasible and effective,” he continued. “Given that the number of costly and debilitating hip fractures are expected to increase with an aging population, the results of this study potentially have important public health implications.”

On the calendar

Silver Sneakers, a free program for seniors provided through the Medicare Advantage program, holds its first 2018 meeting from 10-11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 17 at the St. Peters Rec-Plex, 5200 Mexico Road in St. Peters. To determine eligibility for the program, visit www.silversneakers.com.

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Pump it Up to Beat Cardiovascular Disease, a free program sponsored by OASIS, is offered from 2-4 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 24 at the Middenforf-Kredell Branch Library, 2750 Hwy. K in O’Fallon. Participants learn from a physical therapist how to incorporate an activity program into their daily routine, without having to join a gym. To register, visit www.bjcstcharlescounty.org/events.

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Free bone density screenings for women are provided from 10 a.m.-noon on Tuesday, Jan. 30 at the Spencer Road Branch Library, 427 Spencer Road in St. Peters, and from 4-6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 8 at the Kathryn Linnemann Branch Library, 2323 Elm St. in St. Charles. Registration for the screenings is required and is available online at www.bjcstcharlescounty.org/events or by calling (636) 928-9355.

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Conversations About Advance Funeral Planning, a free program presented by Baue Funeral Home and sponsored by BJC, is from 9-10 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 2 at Progress West Hospital, 2 Progress Point Parkway in O’Fallon, in Conference Room B. Registration is required by visiting www.bjcstcharlescounty.org/events or by calling (636) 928-9355.

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A Matter of Balance, an eight-week program to help prevent falls presented by OASIS, begins on Thursday, Feb. 8 and continues each Thursday through March 29 from 10-11:30 a.m. at the Kathryn Linnemann Branch Library, 2323 Elm St. in St. Charles, in Room A. Stretching and light movements will be introduced in the third class; a workbook and light refreshments are provided. The fee for all classes is $10. To register, visit www.bjcstcharlescounty.org/events.

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