Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Longevity and Mental Health

In the latest copy of AARP magazine there's a wonderful article about the longest-lived people in the world and what aspects of their way of life that might have led to such long healthy lives. The article focused on a research trip to the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, one of the places on the planet with an unusually high proportion of people who reach the age of 100 or beyond. They interviewed as many centenarians as possible and came up with a list of several lifestyle practices they had in common. Here are a few of the ones that caught my attention:

• They had a strong sense of life purpose, they felt needed, and had the intention of contributing to the greater good.

• They live with their families, derive satisfaction from helping other family members, have a strong sense of belonging and of being valued in the family unit, and are supported by other family members in return.

• They eat lightly and tend to eat food combinations with a high nutritional content.

• They work physically their entire lives and enjoy their daily work.

• They share a common set of cultural and spiritual traditions and keep close relationships with neighbors and friends who they socialize with frequently.

• Despite living in conditions those of us in the United States would describe as poverty-stricken and unsatisfactory, as a rule these people appreciate what they have, watch for the silver lining in bad situations, and expect to receive what they need. They are optimistic in their point of view and believe in a caring and loving God who watches out for their best interests.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Berry Good For the Brain—The Role of Antioxidants

The following article is reprinted from my book The Spiritual Journey of Family Caregiving. The original article was published several years ago in a newsletter for Family Caregivers:

In the last few months I have written about Ayurvedic herbs and spices, in particular bacopa and turmeric, that appear to have a beneficial effect on the brain. Both of these herbs are antioxidants. The role of antioxidants has only just begun to be thoroughly researched but the implications for people with age-related brain impairment is potentially enormous. In this article I’ll attempt to explain what antioxidants are in simple terms and mention some tasty ways to add them to your life.

Why We Need Antioxidants

In the normal processes of digesting food and fighting germs and infection, the body produces tiny particles called free radicals which, in small quantities, are relatively harmless. We’re talking about something that happens on the atomic level. Free radicals are electrons that are pulled off their orbits around the nucleus of an atom and float free to interact with other atoms. There is nothing terribly frightening about this—it happens all the time. However, in sufficient quantities these particles can wreak havoc in our bodies because they have a magnetic charge that can pull electrons off of other atoms with which they come into contact. Those free radicals can destabilize even more atoms and, if the process isn’t stopped, eventually you can wind up with cell or tissue damage.

Luckily, antioxidants are designed to protect the body from this destructive cycle. When they meet a free radical they donate an electron to neutralize its electron-stealing tendencies but don’t become free radicals themselves because they have a highly stable atomic structure. Antioxidants are abundant in a healthy person who eats a varied diet rich in vitamins and other nutrients.

Unfortunately, when free radical production becomes excessive or antioxidants are missing, damage can occur. Poor health and environmental factors such as pollution, radiation, cigarette smoke and herbicides can all lead to excessive free radical production. The damage from this accumulates with age.

Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables!

The most abundant antioxidants found in the body are Vitamins E and C. Vitamin E is thought to be such an effective antioxidant that it has become standard practice to prescribe it in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease and cardiovascular-related dementia. It appears to reduce the amount of plaque formation in arteries and veins and prevents tissue damage in the brain. Studies have shown that use of Vitamin E slows the course of Alzheimer’s Disease and may even reverse the effects of age-related memory loss in otherwise healthy people. Vitamin E is found in nuts, vegetable oils, wheat germ, whole grain cereals, eggs, and dark green leafy vegetables.

Vitamin C works synergistically with Vitamin E. It appears to have a particularly useful effect in combating free radical production caused by pollution and cigarette smoke and may offer some protection against cancer. Vitamin C is most abundantly found in fresh fruit and vegetables.

For most people adding Vitamin E and C supplements to the diet is probably not harmful but doctors warn against mega-doses because the long-term effect of large doses has not been determined. It is also likely that other nutrients found in natural sources of antioxidants may act synergistically with E and C to create beneficial effects. So do like mother told you and eat your fruits and vegetables! 5-8 servings a day is what nutritionists recommend. A serving is approximately the size of a tightly closed fist.

What food has the highest source of antioxidants?

Blueberries! The U.S.D.A. reports blueberries have 40% more antioxidant than the next highest foods, strawberries and spinach. Studies on rats at Tufts University showed that adding blueberry extract to the rats’ diet actually reversed age-related mental declines and improved balance and coordination. Previous studies have shown that blueberries can help lower blood pressure and improve vision.

Fresh berries are excellent but lightly cooked ones have an even greater effect. Try adding blueberries and nuts or wheat germ to your favorite muffin mix or pancakes. Here’s a quick and easy recipe you might enjoy:

Blueberry Clafoutti

4 c Blueberries
1 c Milk
1/3 c Sugar
2 Eggs
2 tsp Vanilla
1 1/4 c Flour
Dash salt
Grease and flour a baking dish or pie plate. Add berries. Combine milk, sugar, eggs, salt and vanilla in a blender. Add flour and blend until smooth. Pour over berries. Bake at 375º for 45 minutes or until golden and puffy.

Another Reason to Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables

According to a study by researchers at Boston University and Tufts University, people with high levels of homocysteine in their blood have twice the average risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease. Homocysteine is an amino acid which rises unacceptably in the body when a person’s diet is rich in animal protein but low in fresh fruits and vegetables. It is also associated with a higher incidence of heart disease and stroke. Fresh fruits and vegetables contain B vitamins and folic acid which help convert homocysteine into other amino acids which are not harmful.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

More About Elan's Old AN1792

Sorry to all those who feel upset about the old news I innocently reprinted in my previous blog. I had no idea it was such a sore subject.

Back when I worked for the Alzheimer's Association Elan's anti-amyloid drug trials were very exciting to me and everyone else in the industry. In fact, I gave talks about it and believed we were certainly on the way to victory in the fight against Alzheimer's Disease. I still do, in fact, and understand that Elan Pharmaceuticals is still one of the leaders in the pack.

I wrote about those old drug trials being halted in the context of this article about turmeric way back then because I wanted to let the people in my caregiving groups know that even though what seemed like the "great white hope" of coming drug therapy at that time was temporarily delayed, other avenues for helping themselves and their patients might be already available for those willing to do more than pop a few pills.

Of course, the research on alternatives to drug therapy is far from complete, the money to fund this research is hard to come by (there's not enough profit in it), and there are multiple factors that need to be explored. Drug therapy, to be perfectly honest, might be the most likely solution for the millions of people this disease is already affecting. But I believe, and many other people do as well, that healthier approaches to family living -- staving off isolation, feelings of worthlessness, and depression among other things -- as well as healthier eating and other habits could have a far greater impact on preventing and reversing the early stage impact of this disease than anything else.

That's part of my focus in this blog and in all the work I do. I certainly meant no harm to Elan or anyone else.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Currying Your Way to Health

Please note: This article was originally published 5 years ago. All information stated was correct as of that time. Please -- before reprinting my references -- read the whole article and please stop sending me comments telling me to check MY facts. Somebody has been quoting this article out of context on a site about Elan Pharmaceuticals to stir up trouble. I'm sure Elan and Pfiser and all the other Alzheimer drug companies have lots of new pharmaceuticals that they're testing and plan to make available as soon as possible. This does not detract from the fact that turmeric -- the point of this article in the first place -- has been shown to have beneficial effects.

India has the lowest rate of Alzheimer’s Disease in the world. Studies have shown that in some Indian villages the incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease in people over the age of 65 is just 1%. In the United States the incidence is close to 10% and rises significantly as people age. New research reported last month [this article was originally published several years ago] by the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego, CA shows that eating curry—or more specifically, turmeric—could be at least one of the factors that makes the difference.

Turmeric is the ingredient that makes curry yellow and it is in almost everything the typical Indian villager eats. The chemical constituent of turmeric that seems to have the preventative or healing effect is called curcumin. A team of researchers from the University of California in Los Angeles has been doing Alzheimer’s research with rats genetically-altered to develop the build-up of amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s Disease in humans. It was found that middle-aged and elderly rats fed curcumin-rich diets had half the amyloid plaque build-up of other rats. They also outperformed rats fed a normal diet in maze-running tests, and their brain tissue showed significantly less inflammation, another symptom associated with Alzheimer’s Disease. Although more tests need to be done to prove the ingredient’s effectiveness in humans, researcher Dr. Sally Frautschy said she believed curcumin had potential as a treatment at least for the prevention of the disease, particularly when combined with anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen.

Turmeric has already been proven to have both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. It is widely used in India as a treatment for arthritis, infection, and various kinds of cardiovascular disease. It lowers cholesterol and seems to have a beneficial effect on the liver. New research also shows that it can be used to block the growth of cancer cells.

Researchers say it will be many years before curcumin is thoroughly researched in the West and a drug is manufactured for patient use although turmeric has been used in India’s Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. Meanwhile, [this article was printed in 2002] Elan Pharmaceuticals has announced that they have temporarily suspended trials of AN1792, their anti-amyloid drug, because four people in the test group in France developed a serious central nervous system inflammation.

So, should we all start eating curry?

Nobody in the West is recommending it yet but Indian research shows that adding as little as a teaspoon of turmeric to one’s daily diet has a beneficial effect. The only people who might want to avoid turmeric are those with blood clotting problems or those taking anti-coagulant medication. A small amount added to vegetables or eggs makes a nice seasoning. Large quantities, however, taste bitter and can upset your stomach so if you want to experiment with this, don’t overdo it!

This blog is an excerpt from The Spiritual Journey of Family Caregiving, for sale now through as either a printed book or e-book download.