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Playing an instrument linked to better brain health in older adults – study

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Engaging in music throughout your life is associated with better brain health in older age, according to a new study published by experts at the University of Exeter.

Scientists working on PROTECT, an online study open to people aged 40 and over, reviewed data from more than a thousand adults over the age of 40 to see the effect of playing a musical instrument – or singing in a choir – on brain health.
This study is supported by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Applied Research Collaboration South West Peninsula (PenARC) and NIHR Exeter Biomedical Research Centre.
Over 25000 people have signed up for the PROTECT study, which has been running for 10 years. The team reviewed participants’ musical experience and lifetime exposure to music, alongside results of cognitive testing, to determine whether musicality helps to keep the brain sharp in later life.
The findings show that playing a musical instrument, particularly the piano, is linked to improved memory and the ability to solve complex tasks – known as executive function. Continuing to play into later life provides even greater benefit.
The work also suggests that singing was also linked to better brain health, although this may also be due to the social factors of being part of a choir or group.
Anne Corbett, Professor of Dementia Research at the University of Exeter said: “A number of studies have looked at the effect of music on brain health. Our PROTECT study has given us a unique opportunity to explore the relationship between cognitive performance and music in a large cohort of older adults. Overall, we think that being musical could be a way of harnessing the brain’s agility and resilience, known as cognitive reserve.
“Although more research is needed to investigate this relationship, our findings indicate that promoting musical education would be a valuable part of public health initiatives to promote a protective lifestyle for brain health, as would encouraging older adults to return to music in later life. There is considerable evidence for the benefit of music group activities for individuals with dementia, and this approach could be extended as part of a healthy ageing package for older adults to enable them to proactively reduce their risk and to promote brain health.”
Stuart Douglas, a 78-year-old accordion player from Cornwall, has played the instrument throughout his life and now plays with the Cober Valley Accordion Band as well as the Cornish Division of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society.
He said: “I learnt to play the accordion as a boy living in a mining village in Fife and carried on throughout my career in the police force and beyond. These days I still play regularly, and playing in the band also keeps my calendar full, as we often perform in public. We regularly play at memory cafes so have seen the effect that our music has on people with memory loss, and as older musicians ourselves we have no doubt that continuing with music into older age has played an important role in keeping our brains healthy.”

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Older adults with sleep apnea have higher odds of hospitalisation

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A new study to be presented at the SLEEP 2024 annual meeting found that sleep apnea is associated with increased odds of future utilisation of health care services including hospitalisation among older adults.

Results show that participants aged 50 years and older with sleep apnea had a 21% higher odds of reporting future use of any health service compared with those without sleep apnea.

Specifically, individuals with sleep apnea had 21% higher odds of hospitalisation after controlling for potential confounders including demographics, body mass index, health conditions, and depressive symptoms.

“Our research indicates that older adults who have sleep apnea are more likely to use health services in the future than those who don’t have sleep apnea,” said lead author Christopher Kaufmann, who has a doctorate in public mental health and is an assistant professor in the department of health outcomes and biomedical informatics at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville.

“The findings hold true even after taking into account other factors that may contribute to an increased risk of health service utilisation.”

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, nearly 30 million adults in the U.S. have obstructive sleep apnea, a chronic disease that involves the repeated collapse of the upper airway during sleep. Untreated, moderate to severe sleep apnea is associated with an increased risk of medical problems such as hypertension, coronary artery disease, atrial fibrillation, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes.

The researchers analysed data from 20,115 participants in the 2016 and 2018 Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative cohort of middle-aged and older adults in the U.S. Participants were surveyed about sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, in 2016 and their subsequent use of health services in 2018. Nearly 12% of participants reported being told by a doctor that they have sleep apnea.

Kaufmann emphasised the need for timely identification and management of sleep apnea in older adults to mitigate its downstream effects on health care utilisation.

“Addressing sleep apnea can not only improve individual health outcomes but also alleviate the strain on health care resources, leading to more efficient and effective health care delivery,” said Kaufmann.

This study was supported by grants from the National Institute on Aging and the Sleep Research Society Foundation. The research abstract was published recently in an online supplement of the journal Sleep and will be presented Tuesday, June 4, during SLEEP 2024 in Houston. SLEEP is the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, a joint venture of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society.

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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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