Health Updates 20 August 2012

  • Sharp as a tack at 90: Here’s why: Elderly people who experience no decline in memory have certain brain characteristics that differ from their peers who show more typical age-related memory loss, new research reveals.  Scientists from Northwestern University‘s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center identified 12 people aged 80 and older who did as well or better on memory tests as people who were 20 to 30 years younger.  Researchers dubbed them ‘SuperAgers’.  MRI scans shows that the cortex of SuperAgers was thicker than a comparison group of people aged 80 and older.  The cortex is the outer layer of the brain involved in memory, attention and other thinking abilities.  A thinning cortex suggests a loss of brain cells, or gray matter, explained senior study author Emily Rogalski, an assistant research professor at Northwestern.  Brain scans also showed that people in their 80s and 90s who exhibited more typical memory declines (though not the marked decline associated with Alzheimer’s disease or other thinking impairments, researchers said) had a thinner cortex.  ‘The SuperAgers looked more like the middle-aged controls, despite being 20 to 30 years older,’ Rogalski said.  ‘We didn’t see any significant atrophy or brain cell loss’.  The study is published in the current issue of the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society….Many prior studies have shown that brain atrophy and loss of thinking abilities  go hand in hand [but]….This study is unique in that it starts with people with exceptionally good memories for their age, and then looks at what makes their brains different…the study shows a correlation between good memories in later life and a thicker cortex and larger brain volume, but it doesn’t show cause-and-effect.   What is unknown is if retaining brain volume protects thinking abilities, or if maintaining thinking abilities protects brain volume.  ‘It could be that those whose brains are better “built to last” structurally are probably those brains that are better build to last from a functional perspective, or that those who are exercising their brains may have less atrophy,’ [Dr. Russell Swederlow] said.” (HealthDay)
  • The ‘Nocebo Effect‘: If you think you’ll get sick, you will: “Some patients will feel better after taking a medication even if the drug doesn’t actually do anything to treat their condition.  It’s called the ‘placebo effect’.  But there’s another side to the power of suggestion.  Patients may develop symptoms and side effects purely because they’ve been told about them.  A new report analyzes the so-called ‘nocebo effect’ and suggests that doctors learn how to better ‘exploit the power of words’ for the benefit of patients.  Patients themselves are crucial players, too, said study lead author Dr. Winfried Hauser, an associate professor of psychosomatic medicine at the Klinikum Saarbrucken in Germany.  ‘It is not only the power of the mostly unintentionally negative words of physicians and nurses, but also the power of negative expectations, negative experiences and fears of the patients,’ Hauser said….In one study, researchers randomly divided 50 patients with chronic back pain into two groups: One was told that a leg-flexing test could boost their pain slightly, while the other was told that it wouldn’t affect their pain.  Those who were warned about pain reported actually having more pain and didn’t perform as well on the test.  Research has also shown that people who think they might get a drug can develop its side effects even if it’s not actually administered.  The words of doctors and nurses can affect negatively, too.  ‘People are highly receptive to negative suggestion, particularly in situations perceived as existentially threatening, such as impending surgery, acute severe illness, or an accident,’ the researchers wrote.  ‘Persons in extreme situations are often in a natural trance state and thus highly suggestible.  This state of consciousness leaves those affected vulnerable to misunderstandings arising from literal interpretations, ambiguities and negative suggestion’.  Medical staff members can trigger problems by emphasizing the negative (‘you are a high-risk patient’), being uncertain (‘this medication may help’), focusing attention on things like pain and nausea (‘signal if you feel pain’) and trivializing the situation (‘you don’t need to worry’), the report noted.  Researchers are still trying to figure out which kinds of people are more susceptible to suggestion and why.” (MedlinePlus)
  • Other nations still top US in life expectancy: “Although Americans are living longer than before, their life expectancies still lag behind those of other countries, a government report found.  For example, Japanese women age 65 could expect to live 3.7 years longer than American women of the same age, while Japanese men age 65 live 1.3 years longer than US men, according to the report, which was issued Thursday by the National Institute on Aging….The report also found that obesity rates continued to rise, and the condition persists as a major cause of premature death for older people.  In 2009 to 2010, 38% of people 65 and older were obese.  That’s up from 1988 to 1994, when 22% were obese.  Other findings included:
    • Death rates for heart disease and stroke declined by nearly 50% since 1981, but chronic lower respiratory disease increased by 57%.
    • Hospice care use in the final 30 days of life jumped to 43% in 2009 from 19% in 1999.
    • More older people are dying at home (24% in 2009 versus 15% in 1999) rather than in hospitals (32%   versus 49% in 1999).
    • Women reported higher levels of arthritis levels than men (56% versus 45%, respectively), while men reported higher levels of heart disease (37% versus 26%).  In addition…Out-of-pocket spending for health care services month the poor and near-poor elderly increased to 22% of income in 2009 — up from 12% three decades ago.”  (David Pittman, MedPage Today)
  • Chemicals from soaps, cleansers found in Minnesota waterways: “Sediment in the rivers, streams and lakes of Minnesota contains antimicrobial compounds from personal care products, such as soaps, disinfectants and sanitizers, according to the results of a statewide study.  Researchers from Arizona State University found the active ingredients in these products — triclosan and triclocarban – were detected in all samples taken upstream and downstream of wastewater treatment plants.  They noted that these ingredients are known as ‘endocrine disruptors’, chemicals that interfere with hormones, and that they persist in the environment.  ‘This study underscores the extent to which additives of antimicrobial consumer products are polluting freshwater environments in the US; it also shows natural degradation processes to be too slow to counter the continuous environmental release of these…chemicals,’ Rolf Halden, professor of the Ira A. Fulton School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, said in an Arizona State University news release.  Because the chemicals triclosan and triclocarban are absorbed through the skin when used, they contaminate blood, urine and breast milk, and eventually end up in sewage and surface waters, the researchers explained.  To determine the extent of this contamination, the investigators collected freshwater sediment samples from 12 locations upstream and downstream of wastewater treatment plants.  The researchers analyzed these samples to see if they contained antimicrobial compounds.  The study revealed that overall concentrations of triclocarban were up to 58 times higher than those of triclosan.  ‘We were able to detect these two compounds both upstream and downstream of suspected input sources, and the levels of the antimicrobial soap ingredient triclocarban were usually higher compared to triclosan….Although triclosan is used in a larger number of formulations and personal care products, we found triclocarban to be more abundant in freshwater environments’.  The researchers concluded that because the antimicrobial compounds were found both upstream and downstream of the wastewater treatment plants, there are likely many sources contributing to the pollution of the water at the sites studied.  There was also a strong association between the level of contamination with the discharge from the treatment plants, stream flow and the number of people living in the area, they noted…The study authors pointed out that Minnesota is not alone.  Wherever products containing antimicrobials are used, the water and sediments are contaminated.  They cautioned that uncontrolled use of these compounds could contribute to antibiotic resistance….The best way to limit the pollution of the environment is to limit the use of unnecessary antimicrobial personal care products, the researchers suggested.” (



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