Author Archives: adguru101

About adguru101

Formerly a creative director and writer in NY and NJ ad agencies, I'm now a freelance writer living in Austin, TX. With this blog, I hope to reach "mid-century moderns" -- women born in the '50's -- with content and observations about the issues we deal with every day.

Good News Monday: Your Aging Brain is a Better Brain

Better brainpower with age: Some mental abilities actually improve after turning 50!

by Study Finds

WASHINGTON — Think it’s all downhill for your brain after you hit 50? Think again. Like a fine wine, some mental skills such as concentration and paying attention to detail, believe it or not, actually improve with age.

The exciting discovery could lead to better therapies for Alzheimer’s disease, say scientists.

“These results are amazing, and have important consequences for how we should view aging,” says senior investigator Michael Ullman, PhD, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience at Georgetown University and director of its Brain and Language Lab., in a statement.

The study of hundreds of older people found two key brain functions get better from our 50s onwards. They include attending to new information and focusing on what’s important in a given situation. They underlie memory, decision making and self control, and are even vital in navigation, maths, language and reading.

“People have widely assumed attention and executive functions decline with age, despite intriguing hints from some smaller-scale studies that raised questions about these assumptions, but the results from our large study indicate that critical elements of these abilities actually improve during aging, likely because we simply practice these skills throughout our life,” says Ullman. “This is all the more important because of the rapidly aging population, both in the U.S. and around the world.”

Ullman believes deliberately improving these abilities will help protect against brain decline.

Dementia cases worldwide are expected to triple to around 150 million by 2050. With no cure in sight, there is an increasing focus on lifestyle changes that reduce the risk.

For their study, the international team looked at three separate components of attention and executive function in 702 participants ages 58 to 98, when cognition often changes the most. The brain networks are involved in alerting, orienting and executive inhibition. Each has separate characteristics and relies on different regions, neurochemicals and genes, suggesting unique aging patterns. Alerting is characterized by a state of enhanced vigilance and preparedness in order to respond to incoming information. Orienting involves shifting brain resources to a particular location. The executive network shuts out distracting or conflicting information.

“We use all three processes constantly. For example, when you are driving a car, alerting is your increased preparedness when you approach an intersection. Orienting occurs when you shift your attention to an unexpected movement, such as a pedestrian,” explains first author Dr Joao Verissimo, of the University of Lisbon, “And executive function allows you to inhibit distractions such as birds or billboards so you can stay focused on driving.”

Remarkably, only alerting abilities were found to decline with age. In contrast, both orienting and executive inhibition actually got better. The latter two skills allow people to selectively attend to objects, and improve with lifelong practice, explain the researchers. The gains can be large enough to outweigh any underlying neural reductions.

In contrast, alerting may drop off because this basic state of vigilance and preparedness does not get better with implementation.

“Because of the relatively large number of participants, and because we ruled out numerous alternative explanations, the findings should be reliable and so may apply quite broadly,” says Dr Verissimo, “Moreover, because orienting and inhibitory skills underlie numerous behaviors, the results have wide ranging implications.”

“The findings not only change our view of how aging affects the mind, but may also lead to clinical improvements, including for patients with aging disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.” adds Ullman.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Human Behavior.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

Money Isn’t the Root of All Evil

Jealousy is.

Money can fund philanthropy, the arts, technical innovation, beauty, medical breakthroughs, and many public services we take for granted.

Jealousy has a lot less to recommend it (though it might provoke healthy competition).

In our tiny neighborhood, jealousy has recently run amok. Sometimes expressed in the loathsome designations “up the hill” or “down the hill”, we’ve got an awful lot of neighbors (in both senses) obsessively focused on who has a better view, a nicer house, a prettier yard, or an apparently easier life.

Oh, this is seldom verbalized in any direct way. The jealousy is cloaked in righteous indignation: “Those damn so-and-so’s are breaking the rules again!” by allowing their dog to escape the yard and do its business “wherever it chooses”. The finger-pointers didn’t bothered to learn that said dog was dying of cancer and unable to control its bodily functions. (Dog died=problem solved=do move on, please.)

Then, there are false and oft-repeated claims that the committee responsible for managing the landscaper’s schedule spends the budget keeping the areas near the ocean looking good “for the benefit of the people who live down the hill”. Yet, these same folks are the first to grumble if their view becomes overgrown.

And finally, complaints about matters long since resolved, such as whether someone’s outdoor lighting is too bright. (Consider: #1 There are no street lamps in the community, #2 Ever thought about getting window shades?, #3 Maybe if you asked nicely?)

Sheesh. Have a nice glass of vitriol and (don’t) call me in the morning. I’ll be working on my next rant.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Has Delta Peaked?

This is a fascinating analysis of COVID’s two-month cycle, with the Delta variant following a similar pattern to the first outbreaks. (Apologies for formatting wonkiness — cutting and pasting NYT articles doesn’t always work well.)


A testing site in Auburndale, Fla., last month.Octavio Jones for The New York Times
Almost like clockwork

By David Leonhardt and Ashley Wu for The New York Times
Has the Delta-fueled Covid-19 surge in the U.S. finally peaked?
The number of new daily U.S. cases has risen less over the past week than at any point since June, as you can see in this chart:
The New York Times
There is obviously no guarantee that the trend will continue. But there is one big reason to think that it may and that caseloads may even soon decline.
Since the pandemic began, Covid has often followed a regular — if mysterious — cycle. In one country after another, the number of new cases has often surged for roughly two months before starting to fall. The Delta variant, despite its intense contagiousness, has followed this pattern.
After Delta took hold last winter in India, caseloads there rose sharply for slightly more than two months before plummeting at a nearly identical rate. In Britain, caseloads rose for almost exactly two months before peaking in July. In Indonesia, Thailand, France, Spain and several other countries, the Delta surge also lasted somewhere between 1.5 and 2.5 months.
* Between February and July 2021, depending on the country.The New York Times
And in the U.S. states where Delta first caused caseloads to rise, the cycle already appears to be on its downside. Case numbers in Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri peaked in early or mid-August and have since been falling:
The New York Times
Two possible stories
We have asked experts about these two-month cycles, and they acknowledged that they could not explain it. “We still are really in the cave ages in terms of understanding how viruses emerge, how they spread, how they start and stop, why they do what they do,” Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, said.
But two broad categories of explanation seem plausible, the experts say.
One involves the virus itself. Rather than spreading until it has reached every last person, perhaps it spreads in waves that happen to follow a similar timeline. How so? Some people may be especially susceptible to a variant like Delta, and once many of them have been exposed to it, the virus starts to recede — until a new variant causes the cycle to begin again (or until a population approaches herd immunity).
The second plausible explanation involves human behavior. People don’t circulate randomly through the world. They live in social clusters, Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, points out. Perhaps the virus needs about two months to circulate through a typically sized cluster, infecting the most susceptible — and a new wave starts when people break out of their clusters, such as during a holiday. Alternately, people may follow cycles of taking more and then fewer Covid precautions, depending on their level of concern.
Whatever the reasons, the two-month cycle predated Delta. It has repeated itself several times in the U.S., including both last year and early this year, with the Alpha variant, which was centered in the upper Midwest:
What now?
The New York Times
In a few countries, vaccination rates have apparently risen high enough to break Covid’s usual two-month cycle: The virus evidently cannot find enough new people to infect. In both Malta and Singapore, this summer’s surge lasted only about two weeks before receding.
We want to emphasize that cases are not guaranteed to decline in coming weeks. There have been plenty of exceptions to the two-month cycle around the world. In Brazil, caseloads have followed no evident pattern. In Britain, cases did decline about two months after the Delta peak — but only for a couple of weeks. Since early August, cases there have been rising again, with the end of behavior restrictions likely playing a role. (If you haven’t yet read this Times dispatch about Britain’s willingness to accept rising caseloads, we recommend it.)
In the U.S., the start of the school year could similarly spark outbreaks this month. The country will need to wait a few more weeks to know. In the meantime, one strategy continues to be more effective than any other in beating back the pandemic: “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine,” as Osterholm says. Or as Nuzzo puts it, “Our top goal has to be first shots in arms.”
The vaccine is so powerful because it keeps deaths and hospitalizations rare even during surges in caseloads. In Britain, the recent death count has been less than one-tenth what it was in January.

Good News Monday: Bonus Round

I don’t know about you, but I could use a little extra good news these days. This story comes from Georgia, so it may be a little biased. (Georgia produces one-third of the pecan harvest in the US: nearly 88 million pounds of pecans from over six thousand pecan trees.) Still food for thought.

Image by Lisa Redfern from Pixabay

Pecans can dramatically reduce bad cholesterol and fat levels

by Study Finds

ATHENS, Ga. — Adding more pecans to your diet can dramatically improve cholesterol and fat levels, leading to better heart health, a new study finds.

Researchers from the University of Georgia find people at risk for heart disease who ate pecans during an eight-week trial displayed “significant” improvements in total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol, and triglycerides — which are fats the body stores in cells.

The team saw an average drop of five percent in total cholesterol and between six and nine percent in LDL among participants who ate the nuts as part of their daily diet.

“This dietary intervention, when put in the context of different intervention studies, was extremely successful,” says study co-author Professor Jamie Cooper in a university release. “We had some people who actually went from having high cholesterol at the start of the study to no longer being in that category after the intervention.”

The research team finds these nuts beat out 51 exercise plans designed to lower cholesterol, which reported an average drop of one percent in total cholesterol and five percent in LDL cholesterol.

“The addition of pecans to the diet not only produced a greater and more consistent reduction in total cholesterol and LDL compared to many other lifestyle interventions, but may also be a more sustainable approach for long-term health,” Dr. Cooper adds. “Some research shows that even a 1% reduction in LDL is associated with a small reduction of coronary artery disease risk, so these reductions are definitely clinically meaningful.”

Adding pecans (any way you can) improves health

For the study, researchers assigned 52 adults between the ages of 30 and 75 who were at higher risk for cardiovascular disease to one of three groups. One group consumed 68 grams (about 470 calories) of pecans a day as part of their regular diet. The second group did not add the nuts on top of their normal diet, but replaced other things they ate with the same number of calories in pecans. The third control group did not eat any pecans at all.

At the eight-week mark, participants ate a high-fat meal which allowed researchers to detect changes in the fats and sugars in their blood. Results revealed improvements in the levels of fat in blood among the two pecan groups, while post-meal triglycerides dropped in the group that added pecans. Blood sugar levels were also lower in the group that replaced parts of their usual diet with pecans.

“Whether people added them or substituted other foods in the diet for them, we still saw improvements and pretty similar responses in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in particular,” Dr. Cooper explains.

The team says their findings back up previous research which revealed bioactive properties of pecans for possible mechanisms driving the improvements. They added that pecans are high in healthy fatty acids and fiber, both of which contribute to lower cholesterol.

The findings appear in The Journal of Nutrition.

South West News Service writer William Janes contributed to this report.

Good News Monday: Kick the “Can”

Encouraging news from the frontiers of cancer research.

Cancer’s ‘Achilles’ heel’ discovered by scientists

by Study Finds

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Scientists may be one step closer to defeating cancer after finding what researchers at the University of British Columbia call the disease’s “Achilles’ heel.”

Their study has uncovered a protein that fuels tumors when oxygen levels are low. It enables the cancerous growths to adapt and survive and become more aggressive.

The enzyme, called CAIX (Carbonic Anhydrase IX), helps diseased cells spread to other organs. It could hold the key to new treatments for the deadliest forms of the disease, including breast, pancreatic, lungs, bowel, and prostate cancers.

Cancer cells depend on the CAIX enzyme to survive, which ultimately makes it their ‘Achilles heel.’ By inhibiting its activity, we can effectively stop the cells from growing,” says study senior author Professor Shoukat Dedhar in a university release.

The findings, published in the journal Science Advances, will help researchers develop drugs that destroy solid tumors. These are the most common types that arise in the body. They rely on blood supply to deliver oxygen and nutrients which help tumors grow.

As the tumors advance, the blood vessels are unable to provide enough oxygen to every part. Over time, the low-oxygen environment leads to a buildup of acid inside the cells. They overcome the stress by unleashing proteins, or enzymes, that neutralize the acidic conditions.

Stopping cancer before it spreads

This process is behind the spread, or metastasis, of cancer cells to other organs — which is what can kill patients. Finding a way to prevent cancer from metastasizing is the “Holy Grail” of cancer research. One of the enzymes which appears to do this is CAIX.

The Canadian team previously identified a unique compound known as SLC-0111 as a powerful inhibitor. It is currently being tested in clinical trials. Experiments in mice with breast, pancreatic, and brain cancers revealed its effectiveness.

The compound suppressed tumor growth and spread, although there were side-effects, with other cellular properties diminished. Now, the researchers have demonstrated other weaknesses in CAIX using a technique called genome-wide synthetic lethal screening. The powerful tool systematically deletes one gene at a time to determine if a cancer cell can be killed by eliminating the enzyme.

Surprisingly, results pointed to an unexpected role of proteins and processes that control a form of cell death called ferroptosis. This process happens when iron builds up and weakens a tumor’s metabolism and cell membranes.

“We now know that the CAIX enzyme blocks cancer cells from dying as a result of ferroptosis,” Dr. Dedhar adds. “Combining inhibitors of CAIX, including SLC-0111, with compounds known to bring about ferroptosis results in catastrophic cell death and debilitates tumor growth.”

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

A large international effort is currently underway to identify drugs that induce ferroptosis. The study is a major step forward in this quest.

A Productive Day

The older I get — and the longer COVID drags on — the more content I feel with small accomplishments. Here’s my list; what’s yours?

  • Cook something
  • Clean something
  • Plan something
  • Go somewhere
  • Write something
  • Read something
  • Fix something
  • Toss something
  • Learn something
  • Solve something
  • Contact someone — phone, text or email; bonus points for an in-person visit!
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Good News Monday: Hobbits Were Real

Well, sort of, according to this article on StudyFinds.com:


‘Hobbit’ creature discovered in North America, rewriting history of mammals after dinosaur era

by Chris Melore

BOULDER, Colo. — Fossils of a creature which researchers compare to the character Beorn from “The Hobbit” may change how scientists look at the evolution of mammals following the extinction of the dinosaurs. The prehistoric mammal is one of three new species a team from the University of Colorado-Boulder have discovered that they say roamed North America shortly after the age of dinosaurs.

Paleontologists generally accept that the end of the dinosaurs is also the dawn of modern mammals on Earth. However, scientists have assumed that there was very little diversity in mammal species during the earliest Paleocene Epoch — a geological period roughly 56 to 66 million years ago. This new discovery suggests that mammals actually diversified much quicker after dinosaurs left the planet.

The three new species — Miniconus jeanninaeConacodon hettingeri, and Beornus honeyi — range in size from rat-sized mammals to modern house cats. At the largest end of the spectrum, these creatures would be much larger than their fellow mammals living alongside the dinosaurs at the time.

A smile made for the movies

Researchers say each of these animals have unique dental features which reveal them to be separate species. In the case of Beornus honeyi, its inflated molars (or puffy cheek teeth) give it the appearance of being like Beorn from “The Hobbit” — hence its colorful name.

All three mammals belong to a group called archaic ungulates (or condylarths), which are the primitive ancestors to today’s hoofed mammals such as horses, elephants, cows, and hippos. The findings come from an analysis of unearthed lower jaw bones and teeth. These fossils provide insight into an animal’s lifestyle and body size.

The team’s examination points to the animals being omnivores who could grind up both plants and meat. Despite this, scientists can’t rule out that these early mammals only ate plants during this period. One thing is certain though, mammal life took off roughly 66 millions ago following the mass extinction event that wiped out the final era of their reptilian neighbors.

“When the dinosaurs went extinct, access to different foods and environments enabled mammals to flourish and diversify rapidly in their tooth anatomy and evolve larger body size. They clearly took advantage of this opportunity, as we can see from the radiation of new mammal species that took place in a relatively short amount of time following the mass extinction,” explains lead author Madelaine Atteberry from the University of Colorado Geological Sciences Department, in a media release.

North America had a diverse rodent population?

Atteberry and co-author Jaelyn Eberle analyzed the jaw bone fossils of 29 condylarth species to determine the anatomical differences between each animal. Using phylogenetic techniques, they assessed how each species compared to other early Paleocene condylarths living in the present day western United States.

From those studies, the team believes they have unearthed three completely new species from those first years following the demise of dinosaur life. Results also show that Beornus honeyi appears to be the largest of the three, measuring about the size of a modern feline.

While Conacodon hettingeri and Miniconus jeanninae are similar in size to other rodent-like early mammals, they differ in the shape and form of their last molars.

“Previous studies suggest that in the first few hundred thousand years after the dinosaur extinction (what is known in North America as the early Puercan) there was relatively low mammal species diversity across the Western Interior of North America, but the discovery of three new species in the Great Divide Basin suggests rapid diversification following the extinction,” says Atteberry. “These new periptychid ‘condylarths’ make up just a small percentage of the more than 420 mammalian fossils uncovered at this site. We haven’t yet fully captured the extent of mammalian diversity in the earliest Paleocene, and predict that several more new species will be described.”

The findings appear in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.

A Week Away

Back in June, when it was becoming impossibly hot and boring living in our rental apartment (with molasses-slow progress on our home renovation), Dear Husband and I decided to brave the outside world and travel out of the country.

Armed with passports, vaccination cards, entry documents, and recent COVID tests, DH and I embarked on a short Viking river cruise to Lyon and Provence. The tipping point was their excellent health and safety program, in which every crew member and passenger takes a short, non-invasive COVID test daily. At least we’d be protected within our bubble.

A few highlights, as this is by no means a comprehensive travelogue:

  • Watching the world flow by from our little balcony
  • Cocktail hour with witty and cultured new friends K and S
  • Breathtaking mountain views of the countryside
  • Strolling through Arles
  • Morning croissants and coffee
  • A day on our own in Avignon visiting two museums (classic and contemporary) and finding a terrific place for lunch
  • The uniformly excellent food, wine, service and crew on board

And a couple of lowlights:

  • The airports in Marseilles and Frankfurt (our connection), which were overcrowded and understaffed, with insuffient time to check all passengers’ COVID documents
  • Not enough time in Lyon; we will have to return!
Tournon-sur-Rhône
Les Baux-de-Provence (from the bus)
Tournon
Just drifting along
Saint-Barthelemy-le-Plain
Soon to be sunflower oil
Arles
Arles Arena
One family’s multi-generational olive oil mill in Fontvielle

Damocles

How long is it before procrastination takes on the mythical proportions of an Impossible Hurdle? My plan to write about our recent excursion to France has turned into a post about NOT writing it (“for now”, says the procrastinator-at-large).

So what is the origin of the story (also the phrase, “hanging by a thread” to denote looming disaster or apprehension)? The History website enlightens, as follows:

History Stories

What was the sword of Damocles?

What was the sword of Damocles?

EVAN ANDREWS

The famed “sword of Damocles” dates back to an ancient moral parable popularized by the Roman philosopher Cicero in his 45 B.C. book “Tusculan Disputations.” Cicero’s version of the tale centers on Dionysius II, a tyrannical king who once ruled over the Sicilian city of Syracuse during the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. Though rich and powerful, Dionysius was supremely unhappy. His iron-fisted rule had made him many enemies, and he was tormented by fears of assassination—so much so that he slept in a bedchamber surrounded by a moat and only trusted his daughters to shave his beard with a razor.

As Cicero tells it, the king’s dissatisfaction came to a head one day after a court flatterer named Damocles showered him with compliments and remarked how blissful his life must be. “Since this life delights you,” an annoyed Dionysius replied, “do you wish to taste it yourself and make a trial of my good fortune?” When Damocles agreed, Dionysius seated him on a golden couch and ordered a host of servants wait on him. He was treated to succulent cuts of meat and lavished with scented perfumes and ointments. Damocles couldn’t believe his luck, but just as he was starting to enjoy the life of a king, he noticed that Dionysius had also hung a razor-sharp sword from the ceiling. It was positioned over Damocles’ head, suspended only by a single strand of horsehair. From then on, the courtier’s fear for his life made it impossible for him to savor the opulence of the feast or enjoy the servants. After casting several nervous glances at the blade dangling above him, he asked to be excused, saying he no longer wished to be so fortunate.

For Cicero, the tale of Dionysius and Damocles represented the idea that those in power always labor under the specter of anxiety and death, and that “there can be no happiness for one who is under constant apprehensions.” The parable later became a common motif in medieval literature, and the phrase “sword of Damocles” is now commonly used as a catchall term to describe a looming danger. Likewise, the saying “hanging by a thread” has become shorthand for a fraught or precarious situation. One of its more famous uses came in 1961 during the Cold War, when President John F. Kennedy gave a speech before the United Nations in which he said that “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.”