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An almond-rich diet does a body good
by Kathleen Fackelmann

WASHINGTON -- A daily run, a diet rich in almonds and other healthful foods and a stimulating environment -- all may keep aging brain cells in shape, according to research out Monday.

The animal studies presented here at the 35th annual Society for Neuroscience Meeting suggest that lifestyle measures such as exercise and diet might ward off age-related forgetfulness -- and maybe even provide a shield for Alzheimer's. "We're now finding that diet and lifestyle measures can have profound effects on the brain," says Carl Cotman, a brain expert at the University of California-Irvine.

Most people experience mild memory problems as they get older, says Karyn Frick, a researcher at Yale. She wanted to see whether a daily workout could offer a mental edge, so her team took laboratory mice and gave them either a running wheel, challenging toys, or both a wheel and toys. After four weeks, the team gave the mice a memory test.

Middle-aged mice that ran daily, either with or without the toys, did much better on this test than mice that sat around all day. These mice showed the typical age-related problems with memory, she says.

Older mice got a performance boost by running, playing or by doing both. Other studies suggest that a daily workout and mental stimulation might provide the aging brain with a cognitive reserve, new brain cells that kick in to help with memory.

If this study's findings translate to humans, and that's a big if, a daily workout, a crossword puzzle or both might help keep the aging human brain in top form, Frick says.

Previous studies have also suggested that a low-fat diet or one rich in certain foods like fish might help keep the brain healthy. A report at this meeting suggests that almonds might be another potent brain food.

Neelima Chauhan at the University of Illinois-Chicago gave mice with an Alzheimer's-like disease an almond-rich diet. The animals had already developed some of the abnormal brain deposits thought to underlie the disease. After four months, the team gave the mice a memory test.

Animals eating the almond-rich diet did much better than those fed the usual chow. Chauhan says almonds contain substances that act like cholinesterase inhibitors, drugs used to treat Alzheimer's.

The diet also reduced the number of Alzheimer deposits in the rodent brains.

Mice got that benefit by eating a relatively small amount of almonds -- the equivalent of about a handful daily. Almonds may not be able to help people suffering from advanced disease, Chauhan warns. Still, there's no harm in adding almonds to a healthy diet. In fact, such a diet may protect against memory loss, she says.

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An almond-rich diet does a body good
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