New high-tech may aid the visually impaired

Also: Nutritional changes for the brain and waist size

Wearable devices helping visually impaired

Updated computer technology now is revolutionizing care for those who are visually impaired. A new study is showing that wearing a vibrating collision device can reduce collisions in adults who are blind or have low level vision. Researchers found that a wearable computer vision device can reduce collisions for both people who are blind and those who are visually impaired and using a long cane and/or guide dog by 37%, compared to using other mobility aids alone.

People who have visual impairments are at a significantly higher risk for collisions and falls. Commonly used mobility aids like long canes and guide dogs can offer benefits, but come with limitations. While some electronic devices are marketed directly to consumers and claim to warn wearers of surrounding objects, there has been little evidence of their effectiveness in actual daily mobility settings.

This is one of the first randomized-controlled trials to look at the potential benefit of the devices at home and outside of a controlled lab environment.

“Independent travel is an essential part of daily life for many people who are visually impaired, but they face a greater risk of bumping into obstacles when they walk on their own,” said Gang Luo, associate professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, Boston, Mass.

The experimental device used in the trial was created by Luo and his colleagues in their vision rehabilitation lab. The device and data recording unit are enclosed in a backpack with a chest-mounted, wide-angle camera on the strap. The individual wears two Bluetooth-connected wristbands. The camera is connected to a processing unit that captures images and analyzes collision risk based on the relative movement of incoming and surrounding objects in the camera’s field of view.

If an imminent collision is detected on the left or right side, the corresponding wristband will vibrate. A head-on collision will cause both wristbands to vibrate. Unlike other devices that simply warn of nearby objects whether or not a user is moving toward the objects, this device analyzes relative motion, warning only of approaching obstacles that pose a collision risk, and ignoring objects not on a collision course.

The new study included 31 blind and visually impaired adults who were using either a long cane and/or guide dog to aid their daily mobility. Guide dogs are highly effective, but hard to come by and cost-prohibitive for many. Training a guide dog typically costs $45,000 to $60,000. A chest-mounted, collision-warning device could provide an option and be commercially available in the not too distant future.

Whole grain can improve waist size

Eating more whole grains may mean a smaller waistline. Middle-aged and older-aged adults who ate at least three servings of whole grains daily had smaller increases in waist size, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels over time compared to those who ate less than one-half serving per day, according to new medical data.

In a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, researchers at Tufts University examined how whole-grain and refined-grain intake over time impacted five risk factors of heart disease. They looked at waist size, blood pressure, blood sugar, triglyceride, and HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels. Using data from the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort, which began in the 1970s to assess long-term risk factors of heart disease, the researchers examined health outcomes associated with whole-grain and refined-grain consumption over a median of 18 years. The 3,100 participants were on average in their mid-50s at the start of data collection.

The research team compared changes in the five risk factors, over four-year intervals, across four categories of reported whole grain intake, ranging from less than a half serving per day to three or more servings per day. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, the recommended amount of whole grains is three or more servings daily. An example of a serving is one slice of whole-grain bread, a half cup of rolled oats cereal, or a half cup of brown rice.

Researchers found that waist size increased by an average of more than 1 inch in the low intake participants compared to about a half inch in the high intake participants. Even after accounting for changes in waist size, average increases in blood sugar levels and blood pressure levels were greater in low intake participants compared to high intake participants.

“Our findings suggest that eating whole-grain foods as part of a healthy diet delivers health benefits beyond just helping us lose or maintain weight as we age,” said study investigator Nicola McKeown, who is a scientist on the Nutritional Epidemiology Team at Tufts University, Boston, Mass. “In fact, these data suggest that people who eat more whole grains are better able to maintain their blood sugar and blood pressure over time. Managing these risk factors as we age may help to protect against heart disease.”

The presence of dietary fiber in whole grains can have a satiating effect, and the magnesium, potassium, and antioxidants may contribute to lowering blood pressure. The greatest contributor to whole-grain intake among participants was whole-wheat breads and ready-to-eat whole-grain breakfast cereals. The refined grains came mostly from pasta and white bread.

Boosting brain power with small dietary changes

Individuals who eat a diet that includes at least half a serving per day of foods high in flavonoids like strawberries, oranges, peppers and apples may have a 20% lower risk of cognitive decline, according to a study published in the journal Neurology. The researchers looked at several types of flavonoids, and found that flavones and anthocyanins may have the most protective effect.

Flavonoids are naturally occurring compounds found in plants and are considered powerful antioxidants. It is thought that having too few antioxidants may play a role in cognitive decline as you age.

“There is mounting evidence suggesting flavonoids are powerhouses when it comes to preventing your thinking skills from declining as you get older,” said study author Dr. Walter Willett, who is with Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts. “Our results are exciting because they show that making simple changes to your diet could help prevent cognitive decline.”

The study looked at 49,493 women with an average age of 48 and 27,842 men with an average age of 51 at the start of the study. Researchers also looked at individual flavonoids and other factors. Flavones, found in some spices and yellow or orange fruits and vegetables, had the strongest protective qualities, and were associated with a 38% reduction in risk of cognitive decline, which is the equivalent of being three to four years younger in age.

Peppers have about 5 mg of flavones per 100 gram serving. Anthocyanins, found in blueberries, blackberries and cherries, were associated with a 24% reduced risk of cognitive decline. Blueberries have about 164 mg of anthocyanins per 100 gram serving. The authors say think about color and picking the darkest berries and fruits for the biggest nutritional punch.

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast 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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