Healthspan Happenings: Low-Carb Diets, Alzheimer’s ‘Big Bang’, and the Sweet Tooth Debates

Sweet Tooth

Welcome to Healthspan Happenings, a weekly rundown of what’s going on in the world of longevity research and the science of aging. This week, we’re talking about how fewer carbs can increase flexibility, how your brain  develops Alzheimer’s, and how sugar rushes can affect your memory.

 If “low-carb diet” means eating a bowl of pasta on the floor…

 You should probably check your flexibility. No, I’m not talking about your ability to win Twister or get into full lotus position (but kudos for you if you can!). I’m talking about the flexibility of your arteries. Blood vessels are like noodles. They’re either stiff or bendy. When it comes to your health, being a limp noodle is actually a good thing because flexible arteries can regulate blood pressure better.

What do carbs have to do with your arteries? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but carbs have been linked to stiffer blood vessels. A study out of the University of Missouri found that women improved their arterial flexibility by going on a low-carb diet. The study also suggested that women lost less weight on these kinds of diets than men. However, their changes in arterial health also didn’t carry over to the male participants. Would you take that trade off?

If you think memory loss is the first sign of Alzheimer’s…

 You forgot to whip out your microscope. We don’t actually recognize  symptoms of Alzheimer’s until the disease has already progressed quite a bit. By the time we notice loved ones forgetting things, their brain chemistry has already gone through a number of changes.

Alzheimer’s is typically associated with a protein called beta-amyloid. This protein clusters together and forms a plaque in the brain—a sure sign of the disease. More recent research, however, focuses on a different protein called tau. some hypothesize that tau proteins might actually be the cause of Alzheimer’s. Like beta-amyloid, tau proteins also form clumps in the brain, but we didn’t know how or why…until now.

A team of researchers from The Scripps Research Institute published an astonishing finding earlier this month. They found that parts of tau proteins flip inside out during the folding process. These out-of-place pieces enable other proteins to get entangled and form a larger, more toxic clump. So what does this mean for Alzheimer’s research?

The authors see their findings going in two directions.

Diagnosis

They recommend developing diagnostic tests to detect misshapen tau proteins. Such a method could provide a way to detect Alzheimer’s long before memory loss actually begins.

Treatment

They believe that it might actually be easier and more effective to target and breakdown these tau clumps, rather than removing beta-amyloid plaques.

This study might only be the tip of the iceberg. But now that we know more about how Alzheimer’s begins, we’re inching closer to preventing or curing the disease altogether!

If you have a love-hate relationship with your sweet tooth…

Let’s just say “it’s complicated.” In healthcare, sugar is almost always a no-go. How many times have you heard, “Don’t eat candy; it’ll rot your teeth” or “A high-sugar diet will go straight to your hips”? Honestly, a lot of these warnings about sugar have quite a lot of merit. Yet, the short-term effects of sugar seem to be quite different from the long-term effects—especially concerning memory.

On the one hand, research links a long-term high sugar (and high fat) diet to memory loss and the progression of Alzheimer’s. A study published in Physiological Reports, for instance, found that mice on a high sugar diet had more stress and inflammation in their hippocampus—the area of their brain responsible for long-term memory. While the same study hasn’t been performed on humans yet, these researchers’ findings suggest that diet—especially sugar and fat—plays a major role in how well your brain will age.

On the other hand, a small amount of sugar has been shown to temporarily improve memory and mood in older adults. In a study published this week in Psychology and Aging, older adults drank a beverage containing glucose. Participants displayed significantly better memory and a more positive moods when completing tasks as compared to those who drank artificial sweeteners.

The relationship between sugar, memory, and aging still seems murky at best. So how about we compromise for now? Feel free to have a little pick- me-up of glucose when you’re tired. But don’t’ treat Pixie Sticks like nutritional supplements. Deal?