Friday, December 4, 2015

A healthy skepticism

Last week my cousin Jackie, a retired schoolteacher, mailed me a copy of Life Extension magazine. The publication targets the Baby Boom generation, of which I am nominally a part. (Like Douglas Coupland, the Vancouver writer who coined the term Generation X, I was born in 1961.) Jackie, who noted that she receives Life Extension because her education association sends it to her, highlighted two articles, one about walnuts, the other about benfotiamine, a B1 vitamin. Under the magazine’s monthly feature “Super Foods,” walnuts are touted not just for reducing the risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer, but also for boosting cognitive function. According to the article, walnuts can limit vulnerability to “oxidative stress”—defined as an imbalance in the body’s ability to detoxify or repair cellular damage.
The article notes that in a study involving young and old rats, researchers concluded that eating walnuts regularly may confer “protective effects” on an aging brain. The key word is may. The word appears again in the article a few paragraphs later. Michael Downey, who wrote the article, suggests that walnuts “may have a beneficial effect in reducing the risk, delay the onset of, or preventing” Alzheimer’s disease.
My advice: If you like walnuts, and you can afford to buy them regularly—I just picked up a pound bag still in their shells at my discount supermarket for $4.50—eat them plentifully. But don’t expect miracles.
In a separate article, Downey touted the B1 vitamin benfotiamine.
“When benfotiamine was used for treatment for eight weeks in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease, researchers found that it reduced both amyloid plaque numbers and phosphorylated tau protein levels in the brain,” Downey wrote. Backing up this assertion is a 2013 paper in the journal Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience, noting that “Thiamine-dependent processes are highly correlated to the decline in clinical dementia rating scales. In animal models, thiamine deficiency exacerbates plaque formation, promotes phosphorylation of tau and impairs memory.” (Phosphorylation can turn protein enzymes on and off, altering their function.)
The paper goes on to note that related mechanisms “may lead to reversal of plaque formations in animals. If so, the use of benfotiamine could provide a safe intervention to reverse biological and clinical processes” related to Alzheimer’s.
This is encouraging, though Downey’s conclusion to his magazine article strikes me as wildly optimistic: “In the process of helping neutralize the adverse impact of after-meal blood glucose,” he writes, “benfotiamine can prevent Alzheimer’s disease, vision impairment, cardiovascular disease—and possibly even aging itself!” [The italics are his.]
As I was reading this article, my mind drifted to Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises, about a group of expat Americans and Britons in Paris and Spain in the 1920s. The book’s narrator, Jake Barnes, has been rendered impotent by a war wound. Jake is in love with Brett Ashley, and Brett with him, but consummation is not possible. On the surface, the expatriate life is gay (in the now-defunct sense of the word). But several of the characters are miserable. Jake finds respite from his anguish in fishing in Spain, but he also drinks heavily and teeters on the edge of despair. The novel begins as it ends, with Jake and Brett in a taxi, discussing their plight.
“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Jake’s reply: “Yes. Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

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