In Brief

January 31, 2008

Exercise shown to cut death risk

Fitness

Some exercise is good, but more is better -- at least when it comes to cutting risk of death in the immediate future. That's the conclusion of a study of 15,660 Caucasian and African-American men (average age 59) who were given treadmill tests to determine their level of fitness. The men, tested in Washington and Palo Alto, Calif., were followed for about seven years. Those who were in the "very highly fit" category had a 70 percent lower death risk during that time period than those in the "low fit" category. Those considered moderately fit had about a 50 percent lower death risk compared with the low-fit group.

Moderate fitness isn't that difficult to achieve, says Peter Kokkinos, director of an exercise testing lab at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington and lead author of the study published last week online in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association. "You need to take a brisk walk for 30 minutes four to six times a week. It's not as easy as taking a pill, but let's be reasonable here."

But upping that activity into a fitter zone, which ultimately yields more benefits, doesn't take much more: "Add a little jogging, push yourself a little bit," he says.

Los Angeles Times

Aging

Lead exposure linked to mental ability

Could it be that the mental decline that afflicts many older people is related to how much lead they absorbed decades before? That's the provocative idea emerging from some recent studies, part of a broader area of new research that suggests some pollutants can cause harm that shows up only years after someone is exposed.

The new work suggests long-ago lead exposure can make an aging person's brain work as if it's five years older. If that's verified by more research, it means that sharp cuts in environmental lead levels more than 20 years ago didn't stop its widespread effects.

"We're trying to offer a caution that a portion of what has been called normal aging might in fact be due to ubiquitous environmental exposures like lead," says Dr. Brian Schwartz of the Johns Hopkins University.

"The fact that it's happening with lead is the first proof of principle that it's possible," said Schwartz, a leader in the study of lead's delayed effects.

In 2006, Schwartz and his colleagues published a study of about 1,000 Baltimore residents ages 50 to 70, old enough to have absorbed plenty of lead before it disappeared from gasoline. They probably got their peak doses in the 1960s and 1970s, Schwartz said, mostly by inhaling air pollution from vehicle exhaust and from other sources in the environment.

The researchers estimated each person's lifetime dose by scanning their shinbones for lead. Then they gave each one a battery of mental ability tests.

The scientists found that the higher the lifetime lead dose, the poorer the performance across a wide variety of mental functions, such as verbal and visual memory and language ability. From low to high dose, the difference in mental functioning was about the equivalent of aging by two to six years.

Associated Press

Autism

Research aims to halt symptoms

Can autism be prevented? It sounds like a very long shot. But that is the focus of innovative research at the University of Washington that will use behavioral techniques with infants genetically at risk for the condition to try to stave off the symptoms of this baffling neurological disorder.

If the approach proves beneficial, it could save thousands of children from social isolation and permanent disability.

"This is a very exciting and potentially revolutionary study because it is the first to focus on infants," said Alice Kau, an autism expert at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda. "Diagnosis and intervention at such a young age could prevent the development of full-blown autism."

Autism is thought to afflict one in 150 newborns, more than Down syndrome or childhood cancers, and the steep rise in these numbers has lent urgency to the search for better ways to reverse or even halt the development of the disorder. Experts don't know what causes autism, but they do know that it runs in families. When infants have an autistic older brother or sister, the odds that they will develop the disorder are five to 10 times higher than in the general population.

The federally funded $11 million study, which enrolled its first patients last week and is expected to last four years, will eventually involve 200 Seattle-area infants 6 months or younger upon enrollment, each of whom has an older sibling diagnosed with autism.

Los Angeles Times

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