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Get that blood flowing to protect your brain

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New research indicates that a certain gene – as well as exercise – may slow declines in cognitive function

Alzheimer’s disease is an especially horrible affliction in part because modern medicine can offer little in the way of an effective treatment. But this week brought a few rays of hope on several research fronts for this mind-robbing illness.

Scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York have discovered that a variation of a certain gene seems to slow age-related decline in brain function.

The gene is known to boost levels of “good cholesterol,” which helps keep blood vessels free of fatty deposits. Previous studies have already suggested that people lucky enough to be born with this gene variant have a reduced chance of developing heart disease. The new research, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, indicates this so-called “longevity gene” helps protect the brain, too.

In a study of 523 seniors, those who carried two copies of the gene variant (one from each parent) had a 70-per-cent reduction in their risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease compared with those who had no copies of it.

Of course, there’s not much you can do about your genetic inheritance. But the senior author of the paper, Richard Lipton, says it may be possible to create medications that mimic the gene’s effect – and some of those drugs are already in development.

Still, it can take years for an experimental drug to reach the general public. So what do you do in the meantime? Two other studies, both published in Archives of Neurology, suggest a possible option is already at hand – at least when it comes to mild cognitive impairment, if not full-blown Alzheimer’s. That option is exercise.

Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle found that vigorous exercise of 45 to 60 minutes a day, four days a week for six months, seemed to improve mental function in people already showing signs of mild cognitive impairment, an early indicator of Alzheimer’s disease.

And a research team at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., concluded that seniors who routinely performed moderate exercise – such as brisk walking, aerobics, yoga, strength training or swimming – during midlife or late life were less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment as they aged.

Each one of these studies points to a common conclusion – improving blood flow appears to benefit the brain.

“Our finding is plausible – it makes sense,” said Yonas Geda, lead author of the Mayo Clinic study.

However, Dr. Geda noted that an “interplay of a wide range of lifestyle and genetic factors” likely contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s. Modifying just one of them – such as exercise – doesn’t provide guaranteed protection.

Even so, “at least you can do something … it is better to exercise, rather than do nothing,” he added.

Therapy under scrutiny

A popular therapy that is billed as a “quick fix” for sports injuries does not appear to work any better than a placebo, a new study has revealed.

The treatment is known as platelet-rich plasma therapy, or PRP for short. Some of patient’s own blood is removed and spun in a centrifuge, which separates the platelets from other blood components. The platelet concentrate is then injected into the site of the injury, which is supposed to jump-start the healing process.

Numerous professional athletes – including golfer Tiger Woods – have reportedly used the therapy for normally slow-to-heal tendon and ligament wounds. Now even weekend warriors are clamouring for PRP, which can cost more than $500 a shot at some Canadian sports-medicine clinics.

But the first trial to compare the treatment with a placebo has produced disappointing results.

Dutch researchers recruited 54 patients suffering from damage in the Achilles tendon. Half of them received PRP while the rest were given a saline-solution placebo. All the patients were also instructed to perform specific tendon exercises.

During the 24-week trial, there was no discernible difference in the two groups. They both showed the same pace of improvement, according to the findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The researchers, led by Robert de Vos of Erasmus University medical centre in Rotterdam, believe the exercises alone, rather than the injections, were primarily responsible for the changes seen in the patients.

Although PRP failed to speed heal the Achilles tendon, it is possible the therapy may be of benefit for other types of wounds, some sport-medicine experts said.

But discerning patients may want to wait for the results of follow-up studies on other body parts before cracking open their wallets to pay for this unproven therapy.

Killer TV

It’s fairly obvious that watching television isn’t a very healthy pastime. But Australian researchers have now calculated how much it can cut short your life.

Based on the lifestyle habits of 8,000 adults, the researchers estimated that each hour a day spent in front of a TV is associated with an 11 per cent increased risk of death from all causes; a 9 per cent increased risk of cancer death; and an 18 per cent increased risk of death related to cardiovascular disease.

The study’s lead author, David Dunstan of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Victoria, said the findings apply not only to individuals who are overweight and obese but those who have a healthy body weight. And although the study focused on watching TV, any prolonged sedentary activity – such as sitting at a desk or in front of a computer screen – takes a toll on health, he added. The study was published in the journal Circulation.

CTVglobemedia Publishing, Inc

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