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New study finds loneliness increases with age

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Loneliness is higher in younger and older adulthood and lowest during midlife, reports a new Northwestern Medicine study that examined nine longitudinal studies from around the world.

The study, which is published in the journal Psychological Science, also identified several risk factors for heightened loneliness across the whole lifespan, including social isolation, sex, education and physical impairment.

Lacking connection can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking daily, according to the office of the U.S. Surgeon General, who one year ago called for action to address America’s loneliness epidemic.

Researchers say their findings underscore the need for targeted interventions to reduce social disparities throughout adulthood to hopefully reduce levels of loneliness, especially among older adults.

Factors associated with higher persistent loneliness

The study found individuals with higher persistent loneliness were disproportionately women, more isolated, less educated, had lower income, had more functional limitations, were divorced or widowed, were smokers, or had poorer cognitive, physical or mental health.

‘How does loneliness change across the lifespan?’

The study replicated this U-shaped pattern across nine datasets from studies conducted in the UK, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia, Israel and more. Only one of the datasets was from the U.S., which Graham said points to how widespread the loneliness epidemic is globally.

“What was striking was how consistent the uptick in loneliness is in older adulthood,” said corresponding author Eileen Graham, associate professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

“There’s a wealth of evidence that loneliness is related to poorer health, so we wanted to better understand who is lonely and why people are becoming lonelier as they age out of midlife so we can hopefully start finding ways to mitigate it.”

She added: “Our study is unique because it harnessed the power of all these datasets to answer the same question — ‘How does loneliness change across the lifespan, and what factors contribute to becoming more or less lonely over time?”

All of the nine longitudinal studies were conducted before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many researchers found loneliness became even more pronounced.

Why is middle adulthood less lonely?

While this study didn’t specifically examine why middle-aged adults are the least lonely, Graham said it could be because the many demands on a middle-aged person’s life often involve social interactions, such as being married, going to work and making friends with the parents of children’s friends.

But the relationship between social interaction and loneliness is complex.

“You can have a lot of social interaction and still be lonely or, alternatively, be relatively isolated and not feel lonely,” Graham said.

As for younger adulthood being a lonelier time, Graham and the study’s co-author Tomiko Yoneda said the study data start right at the end of adolescence, when young adults are often navigating several important life transitions (e.g., education, careers, friend groups, relationship partners and families).

“As people age and develop through young adulthood into midlife, they start to set down roots and become established, solidifying adult friend groups, social networks and life partners,” said Yoneda, assistant professor of psychology at University of California, Davis.

“We do have evidence that married people tend to be less lonely, so for older adults who are not married, finding ongoing points of meaningful social contact will likely help mitigate the risk of persistent loneliness.”

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Certain nutrients may slow brain aging

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A new study from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has shown that people with slower brain aging had a nutrient profile similar to the Mediterranean diet.

Scientists have long been studying the brain with a goal of aiding healthier aging. While much is known about risk factors for accelerated brain aging, less has been uncovered to identify ways to prevent cognitive decline.

There is evidence that nutrition matters, and this new study further signals how specific nutrients may play a pivotal role in the healthy aging of the brain.

The team of scientists, led by Aron Barbey, director of the Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior, with Jisheng Wu, a doctoral student at Nebraska, and Christopher Zwilling, research scientist at UIUC, performed the multimodal study — combining state-of-the-art innovations in neuroscience and nutritional science — and identified a specific nutrient profile in participants who performed better cognitively.

The cross-sectional study enrolled 100 cognitively healthy participants, aged 65-75. These participants completed a questionnaire with demographic information, body measurements and physical activity. Blood plasma was collected following a fasting period to analyse the nutrient biomarkers. Participants also underwent cognitive assessments and MRI scans.

The efforts revealed two types of brain aging among the participants — accelerated and slower-than-expected. Those with slower brain aging had a distinct nutrient profile.

The beneficial nutrient blood biomarkers were a combination of fatty acids (vaccenic, gondoic, alpha linolenic, elcosapentaenoic, eicosadienoic and lignoceric acids); antioxidants and carotenoids including cis-lutein, trans-lutein and zeaxanthin; two forms of vitamin E and choline. This profile is correlated with nutrients found in the Mediterranean diet, which research has previously associated with healthy brain aging.

“We investigated specific nutrient biomarkers, such as fatty acid profiles, known in nutritional science to potentially offer health benefits. This aligns with the extensive body of research in the field demonstrating the positive health effects of the Mediterranean Diet, which emphasizes foods rich in these beneficial nutrients,” Barbey, Mildred Francis Thompson Professor of Psychology, said.

“The present study identifies particular nutrient biomarker patterns that are promising and have favourable associations with measures of cognitive performance and brain health.”

Barbey noted that previous research on nutrition and brain aging has mostly relied on food frequency questionnaires, which are dependent on participants’ own recall. This study is one of the first and the largest to combine brain imaging, blood biomarkers and validated cognitive assessments.

“The unique aspect of our study lies in its comprehensive approach, integrating data on nutrition, cognitive function, and brain imaging,” Barbey said.

“This allows us to build a more robust understanding of the relationship between these factors. We move beyond simply measuring cognitive performance with traditional neuropsychological tests. Instead, we simultaneously examine brain structure, function, and metabolism, demonstrating a direct link between these brain properties and cognitive abilities. Furthermore, we show that these brain properties are directly linked to diet and nutrition, as revealed by the patterns observed in nutrient biomarkers.”

The researchers will continue to explore this nutrient profile as it relates healthy brain aging. Barbey said it’s possible, in the future, that the findings will aid in developing therapies and interventions to promote brain health.

“An important next step involves conducting randomized controlled trials. In these trials, we will isolate specific nutrients with favourable associations with cognitive function and brain health, and administer them in the form of nutraceuticals,” Barbey said.

“This will allow us to definitively assess whether increasing the levels of these specific nutrient profiles reliably leads to improvements in cognitive test performance and measures of brain structure, function, and metabolism.”

Barbey is also co-editing an upcoming special collection for the Journal of Nutrition, “Nutrition and the Brain — Exploring Pathways to Optimal Brain Health Through Nutrition,” which is currently inviting submissions for consideration, and articles will begin publishing next year.

“There’s immense scientific and medical interest in understanding the profound impact of nutrition on brain health,” Barbey said. “Recognising this, the National Institutes of Health recently launched a ten-year strategic plan to significantly accelerate nutrition research. Our work directly aligns with this critical initiative, aiming to contribute valuable insights into how dietary patterns influence brain health and cognitive function.”

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Extreme exercise doesn’t curb lifespan, according to longevity of under 4-minute miler’s

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Extreme exercise doesn’t seem to shorten the lifespan as is widely believed, suggest the findings of a study on the longevity of the first 200 athletes to run a mile in under four minutes.

They outlive the general population by several years, shows the study, published online in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which marks the 70th anniversary of the seminal achievement of Roger Bannister, who was the first person to run a mile in under 4 minutes in May 1954.

While regular moderate exercise is considered a pillar of healthy ageing, it has long been thought that exposing the body to bouts of extreme endurance exercise may push it too far and shorten life expectancy, say the researchers.

The repeated bouts of near maximal to maximal exercise performed by mile runners makes them a unique group in which to test the potential impact of extreme intense exercise on longevity, they explain.

They therefore scrutinised the compendium of 1,759 athletes who had run a mile in under 4 minutes as of June 2022, and extracted the details of the first 200 to do so, on the grounds that they would be at an age that would either match or exceed the typical life expectancy for their generation.

The runners’ longevity was tracked, using publicly available information, from the exact date of their first successful attempt at breaking the four-minute mile to either the age of 100, the end of 2023, or death, to find out the average difference in life expectancy between them and the general population, matched for age, sex, and nationality.

This difference was calculated as the observed life years for a runner minus their population-matched life expectancy. This number was then averaged across all 200.

The first 200 runners to break the 4-minute mile spanned a period of 20 years from 1954 to 1974. They came from 28 different countries across Europe (88), North America (78), Oceania (22) and Africa (12).

They were born between 1928 to 1955, and were aged 23, on average, when they ran the mile in under 4 minutes, with times ranging between 3:52.86 and 3:59.9 minutes.

Of the total, 60 (30%) had died and 140 were alive at the time of the analysis. The average age at death was 73, but ranged from 24 to 91, while the average age of the surviving runners was 77, ranging from 68 to 93.

Information on cause of death wasn’t known for most of the athletes, but of the seven who died before the age of 55, six were due to trauma or suicide and one was due to pancreatic cancer.

The analysis revealed that the under four-minute milers lived nearly 5 years beyond their predicted life expectancy, on average, based on sex, age, year of birth, age at achievement, and nationality.

When factoring in the decade of completion, those whose first successful attempt was in the 1950s, lived an average of 9 years longer than the general population during an average tracking period of 67 years.

And those whose first successful attempt was in the 1960s and 1970s lived 5.5 years and nearly 3 years longer during an average tracking period of 58 and 51 years, respectively.

General improvements in life expectancy secondary to advances in the diagnosis and treatment of several major diseases might explain this particular trend, suggest the researchers.

They acknowledge that they didn’t have any information on the lifelong exercise habits (or other health behaviours) of the 200 athletes included in the study, so weren’t able to determine the precise relationship between lifelong exercise dose and longevity.

And comparison against the general population precluded assessment of how other lifestyle factors, such as diet and smoking, cardiometabolic risk factors, and other potentially influential medical factors, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, might affect longevity. Finally, the study included only men as no woman has yet to run a mile in under 4 minutes.

Nevertheless, they say: “This finding challenges the upper ends of the U-shaped exercise hypothesis (as it relates to longevity) and, once again, reiterates the benefits of exercise on the lifespan, even at the levels of training required for elite performance.”

Although the effort required in this group might seem to be less than that of endurance athletes, the high aerobic and anaerobic requirements of middle distance events, such as the mile, necessitate putting in relatively high training volumes of around 9–12 hours or 120–170 km a week, they explain.

While all this raises the possibility of pushing the body beyond its limits, particularly from an intensity perspective, this doesn’t seem to affect lifespan, and if anything seems to prolong it, they add.

The physiological explanations for the extended lifespan are yet to be fully identified, say the researchers, but suggest that these likely reflect the positive adaptations of endurance exercise on cardiovascular, metabolic, and immune-related health and function.

A healthy lifestyle and genes may also have a role, they point out, as 20 sets of brothers, including six sets of twins and father and son combinations, were among the first 200 runners to break the 4-minute mile.

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Ultra-processed food linked to higher risk of early death – study

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A 30-year study from researchers in the US has linked ultra-processed food to a slightly higher risk of early death.

Higher consumption of most ultra-processed foods is linked to a slightly higher risk of death, with ready-to-eat meat, poultry, and seafood based products, sugary drinks, dairy based desserts, and highly processed breakfast foods showing the strongest associations, finds a 30-year US study in The BMJ.

The researchers say not all ultra-processed food products should be universally restricted, but that their findings “provide support for limiting consumption of certain types of ultra-processed food for long term health.”

Ultra-processed foods include packaged baked goods and snacks, fizzy drinks, sugary cereals, and ready-to-eat or heat products. They often contain colours, emulsifiers, flavours, and other additives and are typically high in energy, added sugar, saturated fat, and salt, but lack vitamins and fibre.

Mounting evidence links ultra-processed foods to higher risks of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and bowel cancer, but few long term studies have examined links to all cause and cause specific deaths, especially due to cancer.

To address this knowledge gap, researchers tracked the long-term health of 74,563 female registered nurses from 11 US states in the Nurses’ Health Study (1984-2018) and 39,501 male health professionals from all 50 US states in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (1986-2018) with no history of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, or diabetes at study enrolment.

Every two years participants provided information on their health and lifestyle habits, and every four years they completed a detailed food questionnaire. Overall dietary quality was also assessed using the Alternative Healthy Eating Index-2010 (AHEI) score.

During an average 34-year follow-up period, the researchers identified 48,193 deaths, including 13,557 deaths due to cancer, 11,416 deaths due to cardiovascular diseases, 3926 deaths due to respiratory diseases, and 6343 deaths due to neurodegenerative diseases.

Compared with participants in the lowest quarter of ultra-processed food intake (average 3 servings per day), those in the highest quarter (average 7 servings per day) had a 4% higher risk of total deaths and a 9% higher risk of other deaths, including an 8% higher risk of neurodegenerative deaths.

No associations were found for deaths due to cardiovascular diseases, cancer, or respiratory diseases.

In absolute numbers, the rate of death from any cause among participants in the lowest and highest quarter of ultra-processed food intake was 1472 and 1536 per 100,000 person years, respectively.

The association between ultra-processed food intake and death varied across specific food groups, with meat, poultry, and seafood based ready-to-eat products showing the strongest and most consistent associations, followed by sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, dairy based desserts, and ultra-processed breakfast food.

And the association was less pronounced after overall dietary quality was taken into account, suggesting that dietary quality has a stronger influence on long term health than ultra-processed food consumption, note the authors.

This is an observational study, so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect, and the authors point out that the ultra-processed food classification system does not capture the full complexity of food processing, leading to potential misclassification. In addition, participants were health professionals and predominantly white, limiting the generalizability of the findings.

However, this was a large study with long follow-up, using detailed, validated, and repeated measurements, and results were similar after further analyses, providing greater confidence in the conclusions.

The researchers stress that not all ultra-processed food products should be universally restricted and say oversimplification when formulating dietary recommendations should be avoided.

But they conclude: “The findings provide support for limiting consumption of certain types of ultra-processed food for long term health,” adding that “future studies are warranted to improve the classification of ultra-processed foods and confirm our findings in other populations.”

In a linked editorial, researchers in New Zealand point out that recommendations to avoid ultra-processed food may also give the impression that foods that are not ultra-processed, such as red meat, can be frequently consumed.

They argue that debate about the ultra-processed concept must not delay food policies that improve health, such as restrictions on marketing unhealthy foods to children, warning labels on nutritionally poor food products, and taxes on sugary drinks.

“Our focus should be on advocating for greater global adoption of these and more ambitious interventions and increasing safeguards to prevent policies from being influenced by multinational food companies with vested interests that do not align with public health or environmental goals,” they conclude.

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