Archive for Aging

Caffeine May Reduce Risk of Dementia in Older Women

Coffee has been proven to have positive effects on the brain, even going so far as to protect the brain against mild cognitive impairment when consumed in moderate, consistent amounts. A new study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee has added to the growing body of research supporting the brain health benefits of coffee, specifically in women over the age of 65.

Published in the Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, the study found that higher caffeine intake in older women was associated with a reduced risk of developing dementia or other forms of cognitive impairment.

The study analyzed data from 6,467 post-menopausal women who reported some level of caffeine consumption; all women were participants in the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study, funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Caffeine intake was estimated from self-reported answers to questions on intake of coffee, tea and cola, including frequency and serving size.

Assessments of cognitive function were performed annually for up to 10 years. Of the participants, 388 women received a diagnosis of probable dementia or another form of cognitive impairment. Self-reported consumption of over 261 milligrams of caffeine per day was associated with a 36 percent reduced risk of dementia. That amount of caffeine is equivalent to two to three eight ounce cups of coffee, five to six eight ounce cups of black tea or seven to eight 12 ounce cans of cola.

After adjusting for risk factors such as hormone therapy, age, race, medical conditions and more, the research team found that individuals who consumed more caffeine than the median amount had lower rates of diagnosis compared to those that consumed less than the median amount. Although the team cannot make a direct link between caffeine consumption and cognitive impairment, their findings add to the growing body of research.

Considering that caffeine is easily incorporated into any diet, these findings are exciting for the field of dementia research. For now, we recommend 1 to 2 cups of coffee daily, as it is best enjoyed in moderation!


Using Mindfulness to Combat Pain

The Cognitive Therapeutics Team frequently advocates for non-pharmacological approaches to well-being in order to protect the body and brain against the possible side effects of medication. In line with this thinking, we see promise in research that suggests mindfulness can combat symptoms of pain.

Practicing mindfulness means taking measures to live fully in the present moment. By focusing on your current state, both physically and emotionally, and experiencing how you feel without passing judgment, it may become easier to let go of anxieties associated with the past or the future. Practicing mindfulness is akin to meditation – elements of mindfulness are used in many meditative relaxation techniques, including tai chi, yoga, prayer and more.

Dr. Sara Lazar, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, says, “Mindfulness is basically paying attention to the present moment without judging.”

How to Perform Mindfulness

In order to practice mindfulness, sit in a quiet and comfortable space. You should be comfortable – sit up straight, but not stiff, with your hands resting on your thighs. Focus your attention on how your body feels. How do your feet feel on the floor? How do your hands feel on your legs? Do you feel any physical discomfort?

Next, focus on your breathing, paying particular attention to each exhale. If you become distracted with outside concerns, imagine them as clouds floating by and watch them pass as you return to your breathing. Experts recommend practicing mindfulness for five to 10 minutes once a day, gradually building up to 20 minute sessions.

Why Mindfulness Can Help Pain

Often, feelings of pain are intensified by our negative reactions; our emotional aversion to pain affects how we experience it. Clinical studies have proven that practicing mindfulness techniques can reduce some of the pain associated with chronic conditions, including arthritis and fibromyalgia. Instead of anticipating pain in fear, mindfulness can help you take a step back and experience pain objectively. Where does the pain start? What does the sensation feel like? Does it move or change over time?

Researchers have studied the brains of individuals who practice mindfulness versus those who do not through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Interestingly, they found that those who practice mindfulness have greater activity in pain centers of the brain despite reporting that they feel significantly less pain than others. However, they have less activity in areas involved in emotion and memory – by experiencing pain as a sensation instead of something that is unpleasant, they are able to mentally block some of the pain.

Depending on the severity and cause, mindfulness may not work against every type of pain. However, mindfulness has a multitude of other benefits, including an increase in happiness and a reduction in stress, anxiety and depression. Start today by practicing for five minutes three days a week, and build up from there!


Exercising for Brain Health: Why You Shouldn’t Quit

We hear time and time again that exercise may help keep aging brains healthier for longer. Physical activity gets the heart pumping and oxygen-rich blood flowing to the brain during a workout but also after, which is why it is so beneficial.

The results of a consistent exercise routine can be somewhat extensive: a study of older adults found that blood flow to the brain decreased after only 10 days of stopping exercise. The study, led by the University of Maryland School of Public Health, looked at the blood flow in healthy older adults before and after a 10-day period during which exercise was suspended.

All participants were defined as “master athletes”, meaning that they were physically fit adults between 50 and 80 years of age. These individuals have engaged in endurance exercise for the last 15 years or more and have also recently competed in an endurance event. Their exercise routines included one weekly session of high intensity endurance training for four hours; many were running 36 miles a week on average (the equivalent to running a 10K daily).

The participants had an average V02 above 90%, a score which reflects the maximal rate of oxygen consumption and overall physical fitness levels. For this study, the research team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to observe blood flow to the brain. They measured the velocity, or speed, of blood flow in the brain during the participants’ regular training schedule and after 10 days of no exercise, which is known as resting blood flow. The resting blood flow had decreased in eight regions of the brain, including the left and right regions of the hippocampus and several areas within the “default mode network”.

Though the research team did not find that cognitive abilities decreased after 10 days, the implications of decreased blood flow could impact long-term brain health. Dr. J. Carson Smith, lead author of the study, emphasized that the hippocampus plays an important role in memory and learning and is one of the first regions to deteriorate in Alzheimer’s disease. Reduced blood flow in this area, due to discontinued exercise, could have greater cognitive effects down the line. The team is looking to examine more about how extensive long-term effects may be and how quickly these changes can be reversed.

The Cognitive Therapeutics Team recommends exercising 15 to 20 minutes per day for 3 days a week – remember to keep a regular physical routine along with a healthy diet! Consistency is key!


Is Reading Good for the Brain?

Adults stress the importance of reading to young children but may sometimes have difficulty following their own advice, perhaps due to a lack of time to read themselves. However, reading is extremely beneficial to cognitive health because it engages memory and attention centers in the brain while reducing stress. According to a recent Yale study, reading can also improve longevity.

The study analyzed data from 3,635 participants of the Health and Retirement Study, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging. All participants were over the age of 50 and reported their reading habits for twelve years. The participants were broken into three groups based on these self-reports: those who did not read books, those who read for up to 3.5 hours per week, and those who read for more than 3.5 hours per week.

After accounting for variants such as age, sex, education level and more, the research group determined that the group who read for up to 3.5 hours every week had a 17% decreased risk of mortality than those who did not read at all. Similarly, the group that read over 3.5 hours every week had a 23% decreased risk of mortality compared to the group that didn’t read at all.

The study also found that individuals who read magazines and newspapers had increased longevity over non-readers, but these effects were less significant than those that read books. The research team attributed this to the fact that books typically engage the brain for longer periods of time.

In order to engage your brain more while reading, alternate between fiction and nonfiction, try different genres or pick up books about new topics you want to explore. Try reading for 15 minutes before bed – reading can be a great way to help one de-stress before bed, resulting in a better night’s sleep.

If you are looking for new books to read, try a book from Home Care Assistance’s Healthy Longevity Book Series; the Cognitive Therapeutics Team recommends The Brain Boost: A Practical Guide to Brain Health. Contact your local Client Care Manager at 1-866-454-8346 to pick up a free copy of The Brain Boost today!


Identifying Alzheimer’s in Adulthood

A study published in the journal Neurology suggests that risk factors for sporadic (idiopathic) Alzheimer’s disease can be evaluated in early adulthood. Unlike Familial Alzheimer’s Disease (FAD), which is caused by three genetic mutations, tests did not previously exist for sporadic Alzheimer’s because it is caused by genetic and environmental factors. The genetic risks for sporadic Alzheimer’s may make a person more susceptible to cognitive decline and a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Sporadic Alzheimer’s currently accounts for 95% of all Alzheimer’s cases, making this study a major breakthrough.

These genetic risk factors impact the size of the hippocampus, a brain region synonymous with “memory storage”.  One of the tests that the study found may be useful in identifying Alzheimer’s is to examine the person’s hippocampus. However, Elizabeth Mormino, researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital and lead author of the study, admitted that they cannot guarantee that those participants with smaller hippocampal volumes will develop Alzheimer’s, as that sort of extended follow-up had not been done.

Based off of this idea, the study used a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine to look at the hippocampi of 166 people with dementia and 1026 people who were cognitively healthy. Participants were, on average, 75 years old and also underwent a DNA test for specific gene variants associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease, which is known as a polygenic risk score.

The research team found a small association between the polygenic risk score and hippocampal volume in the group of older adults. They also calculated the polygenic risk score and hippocampal volume for 1322 healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 35, and found a small association in this group as well. Although the association is small (polygenic risk score accounted for .2% of the variance in hippocampal volume), this link is evidence that Alzheimer’s risk may be identifiable decades before clinical symptoms are present.

Even though this association is not a guarantee that an individual will develop Alzheimer’s disease, Mormino notes that these preliminary findings help to inform their understanding of the underlying mechanisms of the disease. This study is another step on the path to a cure.

For more information on pharmacological versus non-pharmacological approaches to dementia care, visit Home Care Assistance’s blog at


10 Facts You Need to Know to Promote and Harness Neuroplasticity

Due to the limitations of pharmacological approaches to dementia and other forms of cognitive decline, scientists are relying more on non-pharmacological treatment plans, such as cognitive therapy, as a way to help delay the onset and slow the progression of symptoms of cognitive decline. Non-pharmacological interventions are based on the concept of neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to reorganize connections in the brain, create new connections and even create new neurons under some circumstances. Generally, neuroplasticity occurs in two instances: as a result of learning and experience or a result of damage to the brain.

The Cognitive Therapeutics Method™ is based heavily on the concept of neuroplasticity and takes advantage of the brain’s ability to create new connections by engaging 5 cognitive domains with activities. Below, we have compiled 10 important facts that you need to know in order to promote neuroplasticity in your day-to-day life for better brain health!

  1. Neuroplasticity is real, and it is more important than our genes. Neuroplasticity is a lifelong process and has far greater effects on our brain’s outcome than genes do.
  2. All physical exercise promotes brain function, but cardio is king. Exercising increases blood flow, brain volume and growth hormone levels, especially if it really gets the heart pumping. We recommend 20 to 30 minutes of exercise per day, four days a week.
  3. Mental stimulation helps build cognitive reserve. Cognitive reserve is the brain’s protective mechanism that helps delay symptoms of cognitive decline, so engaging the brain helps protect it over the long-term.
  4. Overall brain health depends upon working a variety of brain functions. It is not enough to engage only our memory or attention; we need an assortment of activities to keep our brains healthy, which is why the Method targets five domains.
  5. Routines don’t challenge the brain, so try something new or increase the level of difficulty. Activities should be challenging enough where they can be fun, but still engaging. Try alternating between Sudoku and crossword puzzles to work on and improve different skills.
  6. A bigger, more complex social network has been correlated with a bigger amygdala. This area of the brain is responsible for emotion and behavior. Those with bigger social circles are also less likely to suffer from depression or loneliness.
  7. A Mediterranean diet can improve brain health and has the potential to reduce shrinkage. The assortment of fruits, vegetables, nuts and olive oil have proven to protect the brain against cognitive decline.
  8. Chronic stress can block neuroplasticity. Under extreme stress, we have all noticed lapses in memory or attention to detail. It is important to promote calm and focus for optimal brain health.
  9. No one solution works! A multi-pronged approach works best, so include a healthy diet, exercise regimen, social schedule and mentally engaging activities in your plan.
  10. In addition, know your limits. A professional caregiver or Cognitive Therapeutics Interventionist can help you create a brain health plan that fits your unique needs and preferences!

To learn more about neuroplasticity and ways to proactively boost brain health, read The Brain Boost: A Practical Guide to Brain Health, one of the award-winning books in Home Care Assistance’s Healthy Longevity Series.