New research on dementia, nutrition, kidney transplants

Lowering your risk for dementia

A good New Year’s resolution may be to simply exercise more and make sure you do not have high blood pressure. Just taking those two simple steps may significantly help lower your risk for developing dementia.

It’s rare to hear good news about dementia. But that’s what a New England Journal of Medicine Perspective article is now reporting. The article discusses several recent studies that show dementia rates in older adults are on the decline. It is believed to be because many adults age 50 and older are lowering their risk for cardiovascular disease through lifestyle changes. These lifestyle changes subsequently are lowering dementia rates.

“Of course, people are tending to live longer, with worldwide populations aging, so there are many new cases of dementia,” said Dr. Eric Larson, who is with Group Health Research Institute, Seattle, Washington. “But some seem to be developing it at later age, and we’re optimistic about this lengthening of the time that people can live without dementia.”

In 2008, Dr. Larson and his colleagues reported one of the first studies suggesting a decline in U.S. dementia rates, using information from the U.S. Health and Retirement Study. The researchers found that the decline tracked with education, income and improvements in health care and lifestyle. Since then, several studies in Europe have confirmed this trend. Researchers believe that better prevention and treatment of key cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol over the past 20 years are now paying off.

Adding nuts to your diet may have hidden health benefits

Another resolution for this year may be to add more nuts to your diet. A new study shows that just eating a handful of nuts daily may help you live a longer and possibly healthier life.

In the largest study of its kind, people who ate a daily handful of nuts were found to be 20 percent less likely to die from any cause over a 30-year period than those who did not consume nuts. The study also contains further good news. It found that the regular nut-eaters were more slender than those who didn’t eat nuts.

The report looked at the protective effect on specific causes of death. It was conducted by scientists from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the Harvard School of Public Health.

“The most obvious benefit was a reduction of 29 percent in deaths from heart disease,” said senior author Dr. Charles Fuchs, who is with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, Massachusetts. “But we also saw a significant reduction, 11 percent, in the risk of dying from cancer.”

Whether any specific type or types of nuts were crucial to the protective effect could not be determined. However, the reduction in mortality was similar both for peanuts and for tree nuts, including walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, macadamias, pecans, cashews, pistachios and pine nuts.

The new study findings are based on data from more than 110,000 men and women who filled out detailed food questionnaires and were followed for approximately 30 years. Several previous studies have found an association between increasing nut consumption and a lower risk of diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, gallstones and diverticulitis.

A new approach to kidney transplantation

Pig kidneys for transplantation could help thousands of patients with kidney failure, according to Florida researchers. They say kidney failure patients in the not-too-distant future may have a new option that sidesteps the current organ shortage, lengthy wait and potential rejection. University of Florida researchers are using a pig kidney as a “scaffold” in which they are building a human version by injecting it with stem cells grown from the patient.

The researchers say the process could reduce the wait for a kidney from years to several months and save tens of thousands of lives annually.

“It is so exciting, this whole new therapeutic path,” said Dr. Edward Ross, who is with the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida.

With this new approach, a kidney failure patient’s skin cells are removed. They are turned back to stem cells by adding certain chemicals and growth factors. Next, the pig kidney is washed of all of its cells, a process called decellularization.

“The idea was to use a natural architecture, something we could never craft synthetically,” said Dr. Ross. “The idea is if you put the human stem cells in, they will start to differentiate and remodel the scaffold.”

Dr. Ross said about six research teams are working on similar studies around the country, but his team is the only one that has tinkered with the idea of using a patient’s own stem cells. More than 106,000 people in the United States currently are awaiting kidney transplants, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at

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John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute.

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