Could salmon and sunshine prevent brain damage?

Brain-damageWant to keep your brain in tip-top condition? Then you may want to put mackerel and mushrooms on your menu or start eating your salmon in the sun!

That’s because a new study led by University of Kentucky researchers suggests that a diet low in vitamin D causes damage to the brain.

In addition to being essential for maintaining bone health, new evidence shows that vitamin D serves important roles in other organs and tissue, including the brain.

The study, published in Free Radical Biology and Medicine showed that middle-aged rats that were fed a diet low in vitamin D for several months developed free radical damage to the brain. Additionally, many different brain proteins were damaged.  The vitamin D deficient rats also showed a significant decrease in cognitive performance on tests of learning and memory.

“Given that vitamin D deficiency is especially widespread among the elderly, we investigated how during aging from middle-age to old-age how low vitamin D affected the oxidative status of the brain,” said lead author on the paper Allan Butterfield, professor of Chemistry, director of the Center of Membrane Sciences, faculty of Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, and director of the Free Radical Biology in Cancer Core of the Markey Cancer Center. “Adequate vitamin D serum levels are necessary to prevent free radical damage in brain and subsequent deleterious consequences.”

vitamin D bookPreviously, low levels of vitamin D have been associated with Alzheimer’s disease, and it’s also been linked to the development of certain cancers and heart disease.

The elderly are particularly prone to have low vitamin D levels.

Butterfield recommends that people consult their physicians to have their vitamin D levels determined. If they turn out to be low it’s important to normalize them either through diet or sunlight exposure to help protect the brain.

low that they eat foods rich in vitamin D, take vitamin D supplements, and/or get at least 10-15 minutes of sun exposure each day to ensure that vitamin D levels are normalized and remain so to help protect the brain.
Surprisingly few foods contain vitamin D.  That’s because your body is built to get it from sunlight skin rather than from food. However, if your body has enough, it doesn’t matter whether you got it through your skin or through your stomach.

SalmonThere are three vitamin D super foods:

  • Salmon (especially wild-caught)
  • Mackerel (especially wild-caught)
  • Mushrooms (exposed to ultraviolet light)

Other food sources of vitamin D include:

  • Cod liver oil
  • Tuna canned in water
  • Sardines canned in oil
  • Milk or yogurt – fortified with vitamin D
  • Beef or calf liver
  • Egg yolks
  • Cheese

sunlightIf all that sounds a little too fishy for you, then you can boost your vitamin D from 10-15 minutes of sun exposure a day.

I’m off to get mine now!

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Snuffing Out Alzheimer’s

confusedHot on the heels of Friday’s blog – Sniffing Out Alzheimer’s, British scientists just announced a major breakthrough that could, one day, result in a treatment for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

In tests on mice, researchers from the toxicology unit of the Medical Research Council showed brain cell death from prion disease could be prevented.

Professor Roger Morris, from King’s College London, said: “This finding, I suspect, will be judged by history as a turning point in the search for medicines to control and prevent Alzheimer’s disease.”

It is rare to get cautious scientists keen to describe any study as a turning point in history, let alone a study in mice.

miceNot only is it is early science, a lot can go wrong between a drug for mice and a drug for humans and the only published data is for prion disease, not even Alzheimer’s.

So why the excitement?

It is the first time that any form of neurodegeneration has been completely halted, so it is a significant landmark. It shows that the process being targeted has serious potential.

The research team focused on the natural defense mechanisms built into brain cells. When a virus hijacks a brain cell it leads to a build-up of viral proteins. Cells respond by shutting down nearly all protein production in order to halt the virus’s spread.

neurodegenerative diseaseHowever, many neurodegenerative diseases involve the production of faulty or “misfolded” proteins. These activate the same defenses, but with more severe consequences. The misfolded proteins linger and the brain cells shut down protein production for so long that they eventually starve themselves to death.

This process, repeated in neurons throughout the brain, can destroy movement or memory or even kill, depending on the disease.  It  is thought to take place in many forms of neurodegeneration, so safely disrupting it could treat a wide range of diseases.

The researchers used a compound which prevented those defense mechanisms kicking in and in turn halted neurodegeneration.

The study showed mice with prion disease developed severe memory and movement problems. They died within 12 weeks. However, those given the compound showed no sign of brain tissue wasting away.

Lead researcher Professor Giovanna Mallucci says: “They were absolutely fine, it was extraordinary. What’s really exciting is a compound has completely prevented neurodegeneration and that’s a first. This isn’t the compound you would use in people, but it means we can do it and it’s a start.

She said the compound offered a “new pathway that may well give protective drugs” and the next step was for drug companies to develop a medicine for use in humans.

Side effects are an issue. The compound also acted on the pancreas, meaning the mice developed a mild form of diabetes and lost weight. Any human drug would need to act only on the brain.

David Allsop, professor of neuroscience at Lancaster University described the results as “very dramatic and highly encouraging.”

SRxA’s Word on Health agrees.  We look forward to seeing further research and how these findings could apply to diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

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Don’t Fall into a Fear of Falling This Fall

falling_in_autumnAs we transition from summer to fall, don’t let a fear of falling keep you from being active.  That’s the alliterative advice of Helen Lach, Ph.D., associate professor of nursing at Saint Louis University School of Nursing.  And she should know!  Lach specializes in gerontological nursing, and has studied ways to prevent falls for more than 20 years.

While falls can cause problems, we want people to be both cautious and still maintain an active quality of life,” Lach said. “You can’t get rid of all of the risk in your life. But older adults need to maintain their strength, function and activity to the level they are able.”

Lach recently wrote a review article that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association that showed fear of falling is a significant problem in nursing homes.

People in nursing homes tend to be frailer and have more health problems and physical limitations than older adults who are in the community,” Lach said.

?????????????????????????????????????????The fear of falling can stop some nursing home residents from doing anything, even participating in their own daily care. They become frozen in inactivity, which makes them depressed and bored. They get more out of shape, which creates more health problems that actually increase their risk of falling.”

Lach notes that the fear of falling is part of a cycle that can lead to a frailty and a downward spiral in health.

As people do less, they become less able to engage in activities. They have difficulty moving around, and their gait and balance deteriorates. This puts them at an increased risk of falling, which unfortunately means the fear of falling actually becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.”

It’s important that nursing home staff members recognize that about half of residents have such a deep fear of falling that they limit their activities, and develop a way to assuage those fears. Exercise programs offered in a safe and supportive environment can be valuable in helping residents feel better – both physically and psychologically.

fall prevention exercisesSenior adults who aren’t in long term care facilities also may need to confront their fear of falling. Tai Chi, walking, weight training and simple exercises to increase muscle strength – such as practicing sitting and standing to strengthen leg muscles or standing on one foot with a chair at arm’s reach can make a world of difference.

Good Advice for all of us.

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Sleep Better, Look Better

wake up beautifulGetting treatment for a common sleep problem may do more than help you sleep better – it may help you look better too. So says new research study from the University of Michigan Health System and Michigan Technological University.

And it’s more than just being being bright-eyed after a good night’s rest.  For the first time, researchers have shown specific improvement in facial appearance after at-home continuous positive airway pressure [CPAP] treatment for sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea affects millions of adults, many of them undiagnosed.  It is a condition marked by snoring and breathing interruptions and can put sufferers at higher risk for heart-related problems and daytime accidents.

Using a sensitive “face mapping” technique usually used by surgeons, and a panel of independent appearance raters, the researchers detected changes in 20 middle-aged apnea patients just a few months after they began using CPAP to help them breathe better during sleep and overcome chronic sleepiness. CPAP also helps to stop snoring, improve daytime alertness and reduce blood pressure.

patient_cpap_frustratedWhile the research needs to be confirmed by larger studies, the findings may help sleep apnea patients comply with their treatment.  Compliance is a challenge for some because of the cumbersome breathing mask they have to wear to bed.

Sleep neurologist Ronald Chervin, M.D., M.S., director of the U-M Sleep Disorders Center, led the study, which has just been published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.

Chervin says the study grew out of the anecdotal evidence that sleep center staff often saw in sleep apnea patients when they came for follow-up visits after using CPAP.

The common lore, that people ‘look sleepy’ because they are sleepy, and that they have puffy eyes with dark circles under them, drives people to spend untold dollars on home remedies,” notes Chervin. “We perceived that our CPAP patients often looked better, or reported that they’d been told they looked better, after treatment. But no one has ever actually studied this.”

They teamed with U-M plastic and reconstructive surgeon Steven Buchman, M.D., to use a precise face-measuring system called photogrammetry to take an array of images of the patients under identical conditions before CPAP and again a few months after.

The technology used in this study demonstrates the real relationship between how you look and how you really are doing, from a health perspective” says Buchman.

sleepyfacehires1The researchers also used a subjective test of appearance. 22 independent raters were asked to look at the photos, without knowing which were the “before” pictures and which the “after” pictures of each patient. The raters were asked to rank attractiveness, alertness and youthfulness – and to pick which picture they thought showed the patient after sleep apnea treatment.

About two-thirds of the time, the raters stated that the patients in the post-treatment photos looked more alert, more youthful and more attractive. The raters also correctly identified the post-treatment photo two-thirds of the time.

Meanwhile, the objective measures of facial appearance showed that patients’ foreheads were less puffy, and their faces were less red, after CPAP treatment. The redness reduction was especially visible in 16 Caucasian patients.

However, they didn’t see a big change in facial characteristics often associated with sleepiness. “We were surprised that our approach could not document any improvement, after treatment, in tendency to have dark blue circles or puffiness under the eyes,” says Chervin. “Further research is needed, to assess facial changes in more patients, and over a longer period of CPAP treatment.”

I don’t have sleep apnea but if CPAP makes you look younger, more attractive and alert, tell me where do I sign up?!?

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Dogs Double Risk for Distracted Driving

teen texting and driving-resized-600Distracted driving is something we usually associate with teens and their cell phones, or frenzied mothers and their minivan full of kids.  However the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration defines it as “anything that could potentially remove a driver’s eyes from the road, their hands from the steering wheel or their concentration from the task of driving.”

And that includes pets…

While most states have enacted legislation to curb the use of cell phones while driving, only one – Hawaii – has laws that specifically restrict drivers from having a pet in their lap. But a new study could be about to change all that.  The University of Alabama at Birmingham, research enrolled 2,000 drivers age 70 and older, of whom 691 had pets. Participants took a survey on driving habits, and those with pets were asked about the frequency of driving with pets. They also underwent visual sensory and higher-order visual processing testing.

driving-with-dogsThe results showed that senior drivers who take a pet in the car are at increased risk for being involved in a motor vehicle collision. Both overall, and at-fault, crash rates for drivers 70 years or older were higher for those whose pet habitually rode with them.

More than half the pet owners said they took their pet with them in the car at least occasionally, usually riding on the front passenger seat or in the back seat.

That is consistent with previous studies looking at all drivers, which indicate that slightly more than half of all drivers take a pet with them at times,” said Gerald McGwin, PhD, senior author of the study. “And it’s interesting to note that earlier surveys indicate that 83% of those surveyed agreed that an unrestrained dog was likely dangerous in a moving vehicle, yet only 16% have ever used any type of restraint on their own pet.”

The crash risk for drivers who always drove with their pets was double that of drivers who never drove with a pet, while crash rates for those who sometimes or rarely drove with pets were consistent with the rates for non-pet owners.

This is the first study to evaluate the presence of pets in a vehicle as a potential internal distraction for elderly drivers,” said McGwin. “The increased crash rate for elderly drivers who always drive with pets is important in the context of increasing driver awareness about potentially dangerous driving habits. There is no direct evidence that driving with pets is or is not a threat to public safety, however, indirect evidence exists based on distracted driving research on texting, eating or interacting with electronics or even other passengers and there are certainly anecdotal reports in the news media of crashes and even fatalities caused by drivers distracted by a pet in the vehicle.”

dog in carThe authors suggest that when confronted with an increased cognitive or physical workload while driving, elderly drivers have exhibited slower cognitive performance and delayed response times in comparison to younger age groups. Adding another distracting element, especially an animal, provides more opportunity for an older driver to respond to a driving situation in a less than satisfactory way.

Given the current debate about all types of distracted driving, further study of pet-related distracted driving behaviors among drivers, is warranted to appropriately inform the need for policy regulation on this issue.

Do you have thoughts on driving with pets?  Please let us know.

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www.Can-I-Help-You-With-That?

worldwideweb-20thbday-top640There’s days when reading the news makes you feel old. Today is one of those days.

It started out with the realization that the world wide web just celebrated its 20th birthday. Can it really be 20 years ago?  At launch, there were only 17 “subjects” on the Web, including music, law, religion, and literature. Today the internet is so ubiquitous that we take it for granted…unless of course it goes down, at which point we literally become paralyzed. iphone

Next, I heard that Apple has just declared the first iPhone obsolete.  Really?  What was considered so cutting edge a few short years ago is now obsolete!

So I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised to hear that robots are ready to take over patient care.  Yes, I know that many of them already perform surgery, but hands-on patient care?

Apparently, roboticists are developing machines that can help patients with tasks, such as housework, feeding and walking. And, according to a Georgia Institute of Technology study, more than half of healthcare providers said that if they were offered an assistant, they would prefer it to be robotic rather than human.

However, they don’t want robots to help with everything.  Activities of daily living such as helping with housework and reminding patients when to take medication, were acceptable, but activities involving direct, physical interactions such as bathing, getting dressed and feeding, were considered better for human assistants.

This study mirrored the lab’s earlier research that found older people are generally willing to accept help from robots, but their preferences depended on the task. These tech-savvy seniors said they preferred robotic help over human help for chores such as cleaning and doing laundry. However, they preferred human help with bathing and getting dressed.

One open question was whether healthcare providers would reject the idea of robotic assistants out of fear that the robots would replace them in the workplace,” said Tracy Mitzner, one of the study’s leaders and the associate director of Georgia Tech’s Human Factors and Aging Laboratory. “This doesn’t appear to be a significant concern. In fact, the professional caregivers we interviewed viewed robots as a way to improve their jobs and the care they’re able to give patients.”

robot giving medicationFor instance, nurses preferred a robot to help them lift patients from a bed to a chair. They also indicated that robotic assistants could be helpful with some medical tasks such as checking vitals. feeling oldJust like the internet it seems robots are going to take over our lives.

Not sure that I’m looking forward to a future where doctors have been replaced by nurses who have been replaced by robots… SRxA-logo for web

Jumping For Joy? Gene Therapy shows promise in Osteoarthritis

osteoarthritis-knee-pain-ssAs regular readers of SRxA’s Word on Health know, your blogger is one of the estimated 34 million US adults who suffer from osteoarthritis.  The disease, the most common form of arthritis, is characterized by degeneration of cartilage and its underlying bone within a joint as well as bony overgrowth. The breakdown of these tissues eventually leads to pain and joint stiffness. Disease onset is gradual and usually begins after the age of 40, although in some people, myself included, signs and symptoms can appear in your teens or twenties, usually as a result of the wear and tear of repeated sports injuries.

The joints most commonly affected are the knees, hips, hands and spine.

The specific causes of osteoarthritis are unknown, but are believed to be a result of both mechanical and molecular events in the affected joint. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and improving function, and can include a combination physical therapy, weight control, medications and joint replacement surgery. But there is currently no cure.

osteoarthritis-276x300So we were very interested to hear of a new study in mice in which researchers used gene therapy to reduce the risk of osteoarthritis.

And while there’s no way to know if the gene therapy treatment will help humans, or what the treatment’s side effects and costs might be, the findings are more than just good news for mice with creaky joints.

This work identifies an approach that can make a difference,” explained study co-author Brendan Lee MD, PhD, director of the Rolanette and Berdon Lawrence Bone Disease Program of Texas. “There’s a great need for treating and preventing osteoarthritis.”

mouse (1)His study examined a protein that appears to be crucial to the lubrication of joints.  Researchers injected a gene related to the protein into mice and found that not only did the rodents begin producing it themselves, they also appeared to be resistant to joint and cartilage damage resulting from injury and aging.

Still, before our creaky knees start jumping for joy, as with all early research, there are caveats.

The research was in mice, not humans; the next step is to test the approach in horses, whose joints are similar to those of people. And the gene therapy doesn’t seem to do anything for damage that’s already occurred.

This kind of therapy would probably not be very useful in patients who have advanced disease,” Lee said, adding that the treatment would likely have to be used with other strategies.

osteoarthritis 3Dr. Joanne Jordan, director of the Thurston Arthritis Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the findings “would be really very exciting if this translates up into humans.” The study, she said, appears to be reasonable and especially strong because it looks at osteoarthritis in the mice from different angles.

We agree. Any research that provides insight into the mechanisms of osteoarthritis development and a potential protective approach to its treatment are very exciting indeed.  A future with no more horse pills sounds good!

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