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Could managing emotions better prevent brain ageing?

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Negative emotions, anxiety and depression are thought to promote the onset of neurodegenerative diseases and dementia. But what is their impact on the brain and can their deleterious effects be limited? 

Neuroscientists at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) observed the activation of the brains of young and older adults when confronted with the psychological suffering of others.

The neuronal connections of the older adults show significant emotional inertia: negative emotions modify them excessively and over a long period of time, particularly in the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala, two brain regions strongly involved in the management of emotions and autobiographical memory.

These results, to be published in Nature Aging, indicate that a better management of these emotions – through meditation for example – could help limit neurodegeneration. 

For the past 20 years, neuroscientists have been looking at how the brain reacts to emotions. ‘‘We are beginning to understand what happens at the moment of perception of an emotional stimulus,’’ explains Dr Olga Klimecki, a researcher at the UNIGE’s Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences and at the Deutsches Zentrum für Neurodegenerative Erkrankungen, who is last author of this study carried out as part of a European research project co-directed by the UNIGE. 

‘‘However, what happens afterwards remains a mystery. How does the brain switch from one emotion to another? How does it return to its initial state? Does emotional variability change with age? What are the consequences for the brain of mismanagement of emotions?’’

Previous studies in psychology have shown that an ability to change emotions quickly is beneficial for mental health. Conversely, people who are unable to regulate their emotions and remain in the same emotional state for a long time are at higher risks of depression.

Patrik Vuilleumier, professor in the Department of Basic Neurosciences at the Faculty of Medicine and at the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences at the UNIGE, who co-directed this work, explains: “Our aim was to determine what cerebral trace remains after the viewing of emotional scenes, in order to evaluate the brain’s reaction, and, above all, its recovery mechanisms. We focused on the older adults, in order to identify possible differences between normal and pathological ageing.”

Not all brains are created equal

The scientists showed volunteers short television clips showing people in a state of emotional suffering – during a natural disaster or distress situation for example – as well as videos with neutral emotional content, in order to observe their brain activity using functional MRI.

First, the team compared a group of 27 people over 65 years of age with a group of 29 people aged around 25 years. The same experiment was then repeated with 127 older adults.

‘‘Older people generally show a different pattern of brain activity and connectivity from younger people,’’ says Sebastian Baez Lugo, a researcher in Patrik Vuilleumier’s laboratory and the first author of this work.

‘‘This is particularly noticeable in the level of activation of the default mode network, a brain network that is highly activated in resting state. Its activity is frequently disrupted by depression or anxiety, suggesting that it is involved in the regulation of emotions.

“In the older adults, part of this network, the posterior cingulate cortex, which processes autobiographical memory, shows an increase in its connections with the amygdala, which processes important emotional stimuli. These connections are stronger in subjects with high anxiety scores, with rumination, or with negative thoughts.’’

 Empathy and ageing

However, older people tend to regulate their emotions better than younger people, and focus more easily on positive details, even during a negative event. But changes in connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and the amygdala could indicate a deviation from the normal ageing phenomenon, accentuated in people who show more anxiety, rumination and negative emotions. The posterior cingulate cortex is one of the regions most affected by dementia, suggesting that the presence of these symptoms could increase the risk of neurodegenerative disease.

‘‘Is it poor emotional regulation and anxiety that increases the risk of dementia or the other way around? We still don’t know,’’ says Sebastian Baez Lugo.

‘‘Our hypothesis is that more anxious people would have no or less capacity for emotional distancing. The mechanism of emotional inertia in the context of ageing would then be explained by the fact that the brain of these people remains ‘frozen’ in a negative state by relating the suffering of others to their own emotional memories.”

Could meditation be a solution?

Could it be possible to prevent dementia by acting on the mechanism of emotional inertia? The research team is currently conducting an 18-month interventional study to evaluate the effects of foreign language learning on the one hand, and meditation practice on the other.

The authors add: ‘‘In order to further refine our results, we will also compare the effects of two types of meditation: mindfulness, which consists of anchoring oneself in the present in order to concentrate on one’s own feelings, and what  is known as ‘compassionate’ meditation, which aims to actively increase positive emotions towards others.”

The research is part of a large European study, MEDIT-AGEING, which aims to evaluate the impact of non-pharmacological interventions for better ageing.

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Air pollution linked to increased hospital admission for heart and lung diseases

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Exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution is linked to an increased risk of hospital admission for major heart and lung diseases, find two large US studies, published by The BMJ.

Together, the results suggest that no safe threshold exists for heart and lung health.

According to the Global Burden of Disease study, exposure to PM2.5 accounts for an estimated 7.6% of total global mortality and 4.2% of global disability adjusted life years (a measure of years lived in good health).

In light of this extensive evidence, the World Health Organization (WHO) updated the air quality guidelines in 2021, recommending that an annual average PM2.5 levels should not exceed 5 μg/m3 and 24 hour average PM2.5 levels should not exceed 15 μg/m3 on more than 3-4 days each year.

In the first study, researchers linked average daily PM2.5 levels to residential zip codes for nearly 60 million US adults (84 per cent white, 55 per cent women) aged 65 and over from 2000 to 2016. They then used Medicare insurance data to track hospital admissions over an average of eight years.

After accounting for a range of economic, health and social factors, average PM2.5 exposure over three years was associated with increased risks of first hospital admissions for seven major types of cardiovascular disease – ischemic heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, heart failure, cardiomyopathy, arrhythmia, valvular heart disease, and thoracic and abdominal aortic aneurysms.

Compared with exposures of 5 μg/m3 or less (the WHO air quality guideline for annual PM2.5), exposures between 9 and 10 μg/m3, which encompassed the US national average of 9.7 μg/m3 during the study period, were associated with a 29% increased risk of hospital admission for cardiovascular disease.

On an absolute scale, the risk of hospital admission for cardiovascular disease increased from 2.59% with exposures of 5 μg/m3 or less to 3.35% at exposures between 9 and 10 μg/m3.

“This means that if we were able to manage to reduce annual PM2.5 below 5 µg/m3, we could avoid 23% in hospital admissions for cardiovascular disease,” say the researchers.*

These cardiovascular effects persisted for at least three years after exposure to PM2.5, and susceptibility varied by age, education, access to healthcare services, and area deprivation level.

The researchers say their findings suggest that no safe threshold exists for the chronic effect of PM2.5 on overall cardiovascular health, and that substantial benefits could be attained through adherence to the WHO air quality guideline.

“On February 7, 2024, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) updated the national air quality standard for annual PM2.5 level, setting a stricter limit at no more than 9 µg/m3. This is the first update since 2012. However, it is still considerably higher than the 5 µg/m3 set by WHO. Obviously, the newly published national standard was not sufficient for the protection of public health,” they add.*

In the second study, researchers used county-level daily PM2.5 concentrations and medical claims data to track hospital admissions and emergency department visits for natural causes, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory disease for 50 million US adults aged 18 and over from 2010 to 2016.

During the study period, more than 10 million hospital admissions and 24 million emergency department visits were recorded.

They found that short term exposure to PM2.5, even at concentrations below the new WHO air quality guideline limit, was statistically significantly associated with higher rates of hospital admissions for natural causes, cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease, as well as emergency department visits for respiratory disease.

For example, on days when daily PM2.5 levels were below the new WHO air quality guideline limit of 15 μg/m3, an increase of 10 μg/m3 in PM2.5 was associated with 1.87 extra hospital admissions per million adults aged 18 and over per day.

The researchers say their findings constitute an important contribution to the debate about the revision of air quality limits, guidelines, and standards.

Both research teams acknowledge several limitations such as possible misclassification of exposure and point out that other unmeasured factors may have affected their results. What’s more, the findings may not apply to individuals without medical insurance, children and adolescents, and those living outside the US.

However, taken together, these new results provide valuable reference for future national air pollution standards.

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Home health care linked to increased hospice use at end-of-life – study

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Patients who had previously received home health care had a higher likelihood of accessing hospice care at the end of their life, according to a new study.

Researchers, whose findings are published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, examined the home health care and hospice care experiences of more than two million people.

Using Medicare data, researchers found when individuals received home health care before the last year of their life, they had higher odds of using hospice care than those who had never received home health care.

Researchers said this association underscores the potential benefits of receiving end-of-life care in the comfort of one’s home.

As the aged population increases, the findings also show the need for more resources in the health care sector and staff training in end-of-life care.

Home health care services including skilled nursing, therapy, social work and aide services are used to maintain functioning or slow decline in health. Hospice care provides similar services but is intended for those with life expectancies of six months or less and is focused on pain relief, minimising hospital visits and providing comfort and support. Both services provide patients the opportunity to receive more personalised care in their home.

Researchers say home-based care also encourages greater involvement of family caregivers in the caregiving process.

Olga Jarrín, senior author of the study, the Hunterdon Professor of Nursing Research at the Rutgers School of Nursing and director of the Community Health and Aging Outcomes Laboratory within the Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research, commented: “In addition to benefits for the patient, hospice care also provides resources and support to help family caregivers cope with the physical, emotional and practical challenges of caring for a loved one at the end of life.”

Hyosin (Dawn) Kim, research assistant professor at Oregon State University and first author of the study, added: “By providing personalised care, reducing hospitalisations, fostering family involvement and support, and improving symptom management, home-based care can enhance the quality of end-of-life experiences for patients with terminal illnesses and their families.”

 

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Sleep programme shows promise in those with memory problems – study

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A new study has shown promising results in improving sleep and quality of life in individuals living with memory problems.

A group of researchers from Penn Nursing, Penn Medicine, Rutgers School of Nursing, and Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, have delved into the efficacy of a non-pharmacological approach in a trial known as the Healthy Patterns Sleep Program.

The study involved 209 pairings of community-residing individuals with memory problems and their care partners. Participants were assigned to either the Healthy Patterns Sleep Program, which consisted of one-hour home activity sessions administered over four weeks, or a control group that received sleep hygiene training, plus education on home safety and health promotion.

The Healthy Patterns Sleep Program trained care partners in timed daily activities such as reminiscence in the morning, exercise in the afternoon and sensory activities in the evening that can decrease daytime sleepiness and improve nighttime sleep quality.

Nancy Hodgson, PhD, RN, FAAN, the Claire M. Fagin Leadership Professor in Nursing and Chair of Department of Biobehavioral Health Sciences, who led the study, said: “The results from this study provide fundamental new knowledge regarding the effects of timing activity participation and can lead to structured, replicable treatment protocols to address sleep disturbances. Overall, the Healthy Patterns program resulted in improved QOL compared to an attention-control group.”

The findings also indicate that, compared to a control group, the four-week Healthy Patterns program improved sleep quality among persons living with memory issues who had depressive symptoms or poor sleep quality.  The study indicates the Healthy Patterns Intervention might need a longer dose to induce improvements in other sleep-wake activity metrics.

The study’s significance lies in its confirmation of the effectiveness of behavioural interventions in not only improving quality of life and addressing sleep quality issues in this population, but also potentially reducing care partner burden and overall care costs for persons living at home with memory problems.

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