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Studies: Weight, Diet Can Affect Brain Health

Eating vegetables like broccoli and spinach may help older women retain some memory abilities later on, while avoiding obesity in middle age lowers the risk of later Alzheimer's disease (search) in both sexes, new studies suggest.

The work mirrors prior evidence that people may help keep their brains healthy by following standard health advice, including things like staying active and keeping cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure under control.

In fact, one of the new studies found evidence that obesity, high cholesterol and high blood pressure in middle age each added substantially to the risk of developing Alzheimer's or other dementia later on. Each problem roughly doubled the risk, and study participants with all three traits ran six times the risk of somebody without any of them, said researcher Dr. Miia Kivipelto of the Karolinska Institute (search) in Stockholm.

Kivipelto said the findings are encouraging because they suggest that lifestyle changes can help many people reduce their risk of dementia. She spoke in a telephone interview before presenting the work Monday in Philadelphia at the Ninth International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders.

Her study included 1,449 Finns whose body-mass index (search), which signals obesity, was calculated when they were around 50 years old. When examined an average of 21 years later, 61 had developed dementia, mostly Alzheimer's. Results showed the risk of any dementia or Alzheimer's in particular roughly doubled with a BMI of more than 30 (considered obese), cholesterol of more than 250 or a blood pressure reading in which one of the numbers exceeded 140.

The effect appeared in both sexes, though the obesity factor was slightly stronger in women, Kivipelto said.

The findings make sense, commented Deborah Gustafson of the Medical College of Wisconsin. Gustafson had reported evidence that women who are overweight in their 70s had an increased risk of getting Alzheimer's, while the new work extends the finding back into middle age, she noted.

The other new study found that women in their 60s who habitually ate more cruciferous and green leafy vegetables than other women went on to show less overall decline on a bundle of tests measuring memory, verbal ability and attention when they were in their 70s. Such foods include broccoli, cauliflower, romaine lettuce and spinach.

The federally funded study didn't include men, but the effect would probably appear in them too, said Jae Hee Kang, an instructor at Harvard's Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston who presented the work. She stressed that the findings need to be confirmed by further studies.

Researchers focused on drop-offs in abilities like remembering word lists after 15 minutes, naming as many animals as possible in one minute, and reciting a list of numbers backward. A pronounced decline may foreshadow Alzheimer's.

Kang and colleagues studied 13,388 nurses participating in a long-running health study. They compared the participants' questionnaires on long-term eating habits over a span of 10 years, when they were in their 60s, to their performance in two test sessions when they were in their 70s. Researchers noted how much the scores declined in the two years between sessions.

While most women in the study showed some decline, those who had habitually eaten the most cruciferous and green leafy vegetables showed less decline than those who ate the least, Kang said.

"It was almost like they were younger by one or two years in terms of their cognitive declining," Kang said in a telephone interview.

The contrasts appeared between those who ate about eight servings versus three servings of green leafy vegetables a week, and those who ate about five servings versus two servings of cruciferous vegetables a week.

The effect of the vegetables probably comes from the antioxidants and B vitamins they contain, Kang said.