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Monday, December 22, 2014



Patients who experience migraines have twice the risk of developing Bell’s palsy, which causes sudden facial paralysis, as those without migraine according to a study published in the journal Neurology.


The study demonstrates “a very new association between migraine and Bell’s palsy,” which occurs in approximately 11 to 40 per 100,000 persons each year, study author Shuu-Jiun Wang, MD, deputy director of the Taipei Veterans General Hospital Neurological Institute and chairman of the National Yang-Ming University Faculty of Medicine in Taipei, Taiwan, said in a news release.


“Our study suggests that these two conditions may share a common underlying link,” although that link is still unclear, Dr. Wang said.


Image via mislav-m on Flickr.


Study Details

Using data from the Taiwan National Health Insurance Research Database, investigators followed 136,704 adults aged 18 and older for approximately three years. Half of the subjects had been diagnosed with migraine; the other half were headache-free. During that time, 671 people in the migraine group and 365 people in the non-migraine group received a diagnosis of Bell’s palsy.


The Results

The researchers discovered that patients with migraine were nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, which led them to believe that “infection, inflammation, or heart and vascular problems could be shared causes for these diseases,” said Dr. Wang.


As in earlier research, they found that diabetes, hypertension, and older age were also associated with a higher incidence of Bell’s palsy.


“Whether migraine per se or the frequency of migraine attacks contributes more to the development of Bell palsy remains uncertain,” the study authors wrote. But if a common underlying disease mechanism for both migraine and Bell’s palsy can be identified and confirmed, “more research may lead to better treatments for both conditions,” Dr. Wang said.


What Is Bell’s Palsy?

Bell’s palsy is the sudden onset of weakness or paralysis on one side of the face, causing facial features to droop. It can also affect the sense of taste and can cause ear pain, drooling, or tearing in one eye. The condition is usually temporary and gets better on its own after a few weeks.


The causes of Bell’s palsy are unknown, but it is believed to be linked to the herpes virus and other viral infections, as well as inflammation in the nerves that control the muscles of the face. Past research has suggested that diabetes, hypertension, and pregnancy can increase the risk of developing the condition.


Although a stroke can also cause facial weakness and drooping, Bell’s palsy is not linked to stroke. Be sure to visit your doctor to rule out other causes if you develop the condition overnight.


Mitigate Migraines

Don’t sit and suffer through migraines. Here are 8 things you can do to manage them:


1.      Talk to Your Doctor about Medication. Over-the-counter ibuprofen and acetaminophen can help ease the pain, while “abortive medications” like ergotamine and triptans can stop a migraine in its tracks. Preventive medications like propranolol and timolol can also help reduce the frequency of attacks.


2.      Keep a Migraine Diary. Many migraines are triggered by foods, alcohol, and changes in the weather. To determine your triggers, keep a diary of when your headaches hit, and share that information with your neurologist.


3.      Get Enough Sleep. Aim for 7 or 8 hours of sleep each night, and stick to a regular sleep schedule. Getting too much or too little sleep can induce an attack.


4.      Drink Plenty of Water. Dehydration can bring on migraines, so be sure to drink water throughout the day.


5.      Cut Back on Caffeine. While a small amount of caffeine can provide migraine relief, too much can act as a trigger.


6.      Back Off the Booze. Red wine is a common migraine trigger, but alcohol in general increases blood flow to the brain, which can bring on a migraine.


7.      Avoid “Trigger” Foods. For many migraineurs, foods like nuts and seeds, peanut butter, chocolate, aged cheeses, and cured meats can bring on an attack.


8.      Exercise. Moderate aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, has been shown to reduce the frequency and severity of migraines—and it reduces stress, which is another common trigger. 


To learn more about migraine, see Migraine: The Basics, or browse our archives here.

Friday, December 19, 2014



Just in time for the holidays, new research offers insight into what happens in our brains when we consume sugary foods—like, say, a freshly baked batch of Christmas cookies. The study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, looked at the way children’s brains respond to sucrose, or table sugar, and found that the “reward center” in the brains of obese children lights up like a Christmas tree in response to sugary snacks.


            The findings suggest that some children may be predisposed to craving sugary foods, which may result in overeating and obesity, the study authors wrote. But the evidence also offers hope for developing treatments aimed at curbing childhood obesity, they said. Approximately one in three children in the United States is obese, and 80 percent of obese children remain overweight in adulthood.


Image via Curt Smith on Flickr.


Study Details

Investigators used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 23 children between the ages of eight and 12 while they tasted a small serving of water mixed with sucrose. Ten of the children were obese and 13 had a healthy weight, as measured by the body mass index (BMI) scale.


Using fMRI, the researchers looked at the brain’s “reward center,” the parts known to be involved in generating feelings of pleasure in response to stimuli, including the amygdala, the insular cortex, and the striatum.


The Results

The investigators found that obese children had more activity in the amygdala and the insular cortex when tasting the sugar-water than healthy weight children.


“The take-home message is that obese children, compared to healthy weight children, have enhanced responses in their brain to sugar,” study author Kerri Boutelle, PhD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego and founder of the university’s Center for Healthy Eating and Activity Research, said in a news release.


While the results don’t show that being hypersensitive to sugar causes obesity, it does support a prevailing notion that obese children have a heightened psychological response to sugary foods, which may prompt them to overeat. The study authors added that future research should look at even younger children, to pinpoint exactly when this heightened response to sugar develops.


“Any obesity expert will tell you that losing weight is hard and that the battle has to be won on the prevention side,” said Dr. Boutelle. “The study is a wake-up call that prevention has to start very early because some children may be born with a hypersensitivity to food rewards.”



Glucose vs Fructose

In a separate report presented at the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology annual meeting earlier this month, researchers found that the reward center of the brain responds differently to fructose than to glucose, and that consuming fructose is associated with a heightened reward response that can lead to overeating and obesity.


Glucose, which serves as the body’s primary source of energy, is a sugar manufactured in the body by breaking down complex carbohydrates such as beans, whole grains, and vegetables. Fructose is a type of sugar found mainly in fruit, but is also added to many processed foods in the form of high-fructose corn syrup.


The researchers asked 24 men and women between the ages of 16 and 25 to drink a beverage containing either glucose or fructose, then scanned their brains using fMRI while showing them images of food. They found that the reward center of the participants’ brains responded more to fructose than to glucose; those who drank the fructose beverage also said they felt hungrier than those in the glucose group, suggesting that fructose may promote overeating.


Sugar May Weaken the Brain

In addition to contributing to obesity, a high-sugar diet can have not-so-sweet effects on your brain. Recent research shows that people with high blood sugar and diabetes have double the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, and that even moderately elevated blood sugar is a risk factor for cognitive problems later in life.


Doctors aren’t exactly sure why high blood sugar is linked to dementia, but it’s possible that too much sugar in the blood blocks, narrows, and stiffens the arteries, meaning fewer nutrients and oxygen can reach the brain. This can cause brain injury leading to dementia and Alzheimer’s.


4 Ways to Wean Off Sugar


1.      Cut back on processed foods and sugary drinks like soda and fruit punch, which are more likely to contain high-fructose corn syrup.


2.      Eat additional servings of fruits and vegetables, which are not only good for your waistline but also increase cardiovascular health and contribute to healthier blood sugar levels.


3.      Don’t skimp on sleep. Not getting enough sleep can increase appetite, so try to get a good seven or eight hours each night.


4.      Exercise regularly. It not only combats obesity, it helps keep your blood sugar stable, lowering your risk for dementia. Now that’s sweet!


To learn more about sugar’s effect on the brain, browse our archives here. For more ways to keep your brain healthy and active, check out our Healthy Brain and Living Well columns.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014



Elderly people who stay socially active by meeting up with friends, chatting with family on the phone, and writing letters to loved ones may lower their risk for conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia, recent research has found. Now, a new study suggests that getting your grandparents to go online and engage with email and social media can improve their sense of well-being, which may also boost their cognitive and mental health.


Image via mkhmarketing on Flickr.


Study Details

The Ages 2.0 study was conducted in the United Kingdom and Italy to test the idea that older adults trained to use computers and social media would have a greater sense of well-being and feel less socially isolated than people who were not using the technology. In the UK, investigators recruited 76 adults between the ages of 60 and 95 who were receiving health services from a non-profit eldercare organization. Some lived in their own homes; others had been transferred to nursing care facilities.


Half of the study participants continued to receive their usual care, while the other half were trained to use an “Easy PC package”—a touch-screen computer and keyboard equipped with email and social media platforms like Facebook and Skype, plus an Internet connection. They could keep the computer for 12 months, starting with a three-month training period where they were taught to use the computer and the various social media platforms.


The researchers also periodically administered tests to measure the participants’ cognitive and mental health, their involvement in social relationships, and their attitudes toward computer use. (Participants took the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE), which evaluates memory and thinking skills, and completed questionnaires to indicate whether they felt happy or depressed, socially connected or isolated.)


The Results

As expected, those who were trained to use the Easy PC “developed more positive attitudes about computers, felt themselves to be more competent as a person, and were engaged more actively with their social network” than those who did not use a computer, the authors wrote. Their scores on the Mini-Mental State Examination also seemed to improve, suggesting a possible boost in their cognitive capacity.


This improved sense of competency and well-being led to gains in mental health as reported on the questionnaires, the authors added.


The Italy Study

Parallel research was conducted in Italy, using roughly the same number of participants and a similar methodology. The results were in line with the UK study: in both, seniors who were trained to use the Easy PC package became more positive about computers over time, felt a greater sense of self-competency, and showed improved cognitive capacity. However, only the people in the UK arm of the study showed improvements in mental health and well-being. The authors weren’t sure why these extra effects were observed only in the UK group.


Why Social Media Boosts Health

Social media can boost mental health in the elderly by increasing their level of social interaction, which may plummet in old age due to illness, disability, nursing home placement, the death of friends and loved ones, and a diminished ability to communicate, says Thomas Morton, PhD, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Exeter in the UK, who conducted research in the Ages 2.0 study.


Feelings of loneliness and depression can have a real impact on physical health, too. Past studies have shown that not only does a broader social network protect against mental health issues like depression, but it’s also been linked to lower rates of mortality and dementia.


“People who are socially isolated or who experience loneliness are more vulnerable to disease and decline,” Dr. Morton said in a news release. “For these reasons, finding ways to support people’s social connections is a really important goal. This study shows how technology can be a useful tool for enabling social connections, and that supporting older people in our community to use technology effectively can have important benefits for their health and well-being.”


How to Get Online

If you’re ready to take the plunge and get online—or you’re already online but want to dive deeper—ask a web-savvy family member or friend to walk you through the technology. There are also several organizations devoted to helping seniors master new technologies, such as Older Adults Technology Services, SeniorNet, and OASIS Connections.


For more ways to keep your brain healthy and active, check out our Healthy Brain and Living Well columns.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014



It’s normal for your memory to get a little hazier as you age, but noticeable changes in memory could be linked to something more sinister, like an increased risk for stroke, according to a new study published in the journal Stroke. College-educated people who notice their memory slipping may be especially vulnerable, the authors of the paper suggest.


Image via Saad Faruque on Flickr.



Investigators set out to determine whether there was a link between self-reported memory problems and risk of stroke. They looked at 9,152 people aged 55 and older who enrolled in the study between the years 1990 and 1993, and again between 2000 and 2001. They were followed through 2012.


The participants were asked to indicate whether they had experienced problems with their memory and took tests designed to measure memory and cognitive function; the researchers also collected demographic data on the participants such as level of education, smoking status, level of physical activity, body mass index, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.



By 2012, there were 1,134 strokes among the study participants. The researchers found that those who complained of memory problems when they enrolled had a 20 percent greater likelihood of experiencing a stroke. Meanwhile, participants with the highest level of education (university or advanced vocational training) who complained of memory problems were 39 percent more likely to have a stroke than less-educated participants.


            Past research has found that highly educated people who complain of memory lapses are also at an increased risk for dementia—not surprising, since one of the classic features of Alzheimer’s disease is memory loss, said study author Arfan Ikram, MD, an associate professor of neuroepidemiology at Erasmus University in the Netherlands, in a recent interview.


“Persons who complain of cognitive/memory complaints should be monitored not only because of the possibility of incipient dementia, but also for an increased risk for stroke,” Dr. Ikram said. Memory complaints that are “more [frequent] than usual and interfere in one’s daily functioning” are particularly worrisome, he added.



It is not clear why highly educated people who notice their memory slipping are at a higher risk for stroke. The authors suggested that these people may have more cognitive reserve—the brain’s ability to keep functioning normally despite damage or injury—which can mask mild changes in thinking and memory until they become too severe to ignore.


It is also possible that highly educated people are “more likely to notice subtle changes in their cognitive performance than the less educated,” they said.



Not everyone who feels their memory is slipping will experience a stroke, but if you notice it failing you persistently, check in with your doctor. He or she may be able to recommend ways to lower your potential stroke risk—for example, by encouraging you to follow a low-fat and low-sodium diet, not to smoke (or to quit, if you do), exercise regularly, cut back on drinking (if necessary), and to control existing high blood pressure or diabetes with medication.


For more coverage of the link between memory and stroke, browse our archives here. For tips on how to keep your brain in tip-top shape, check out our Living Well and Healthy Brain columns.

Friday, December 12, 2014



A good night’s sleep doesn’t just rejuvenate the body — it can do wonders for your brain, too.  But unfortunately, the opposite is also true: not getting enough sleep, or not getting the right kind of sleep, can have negative effects on your memory and thinking, and can even put you at a higher risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia.



People with sleep apnea, where breathing becomes irregular or stops completely during sleep, and those with conditions like pulmonary hypertension and emphysema, which can cause a dangerous dip in blood oxygen levels during sleep, are especially vulnerable, according to a new study published in the journal Neurology. The study found that abnormal breathing during sleep, as well as a shorter time spent in deep or “slow-wave” sleep may be linked to abnormalities in the brain that increase the risk of dementia.


Obstructive sleep apnea is a recurrent interruption in breathing during sleep, caused by sleep-related muscle relaxation in the upper airway.This leads to a decrease or complete blockage of airflow for brief periods Blood oxygen level may fall, triggering arousals or awakenings that disturb sleep.



Researchers analyzed 167 Japanese-American men who underwent a battery of sleep tests around age 84 and died an average of 6 years later. The sleep tests measured levels of oxygen in their blood, duration of abnormal breathing during sleep, and duration of slow-wave sleep. The researchers then divided the men into four groups based on the percentage of time spent with lower than average blood oxygen levels during sleep, and also based on the amount of time spent in deep sleep. They performed brain autopsies after death to look for evidence of tiny brain lesions known as micro-infarcts, loss of brain cells, brain shrinkage or atrophy, and the hallmark plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease.



The researchers found that men who had lower blood oxygen levels during sleep were four times more likely to have micro-infarcts than those who had more oxygen in the blood. These tiny brain lesions have been linked to dementia in past research.


Likewise, those who spent less time in slow-wave sleep were more likely to have brain atrophy and loss of brain cells — which have also been associated with dementia — than those who spent more time in deep sleep. Those who had more deep sleep also fared better on thinking and memory tests over time, suggesting that getting enough short-wave sleep may help protect against cognitive decline, the authors wrote.


“These findings suggest that low blood oxygen levels and reduced slow-wave sleep may contribute to the processes that lead to cognitive decline and dementia,” study author Rebecca P. Gelber, MD, MPH, an internal medicine physician with the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System in Honolulu, said in a news release.



“More research is needed to determine how slow-wave sleep may play a restorative role in brain function and whether preventing low blood oxygen levels may reduce the risk of dementia,” said Dr. Gelber.



If you have sleep apnea, take these steps to improve your sleep:


1.      Invest in a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. Past research shows that using it can improve cognitive performance, even after dementia has developed, said Dr. Gelber.


2.      Find the right mask for your CPAP machine. A well-fitting mask will make it easier to get adjusted to sleeping with the machine, experts told Neurology Now. With practice, you’ll find it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.


3.      Stay off your back during sleep. Sleeping on your back can trigger sleep apnea attacks. Some people with sleep apnea have found that sleeping on one side can decrease the frequency of attacks. Using a whole-body pillow can help you keep that position through the night.


4.      Lose weight (if you’re overweight). Obesity is a major risk factor for sleep apnea, but even if you already have the condition, getting down to a healthy weight can help reduce the frequency of attacks.


5.      Stick to a strict sleep schedule. People with sleep apnea often feel extreme fatigue during the day. Getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night and going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day can reduce fatigue and attack frequency.


6.      Avoid alcohol before bed. Alcohol has been shown to impair breathing in people with obstructive sleep apnea, making the symptoms worse.


For more coverage of sleep disorders, browse our archives here.