Monthly Archives: September 2012

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Dementia may be diagnosed when someone experiences loss of memory plus loss of another faculty, such as executive functioning (decision-making) or language abilities (speaking, writing or reading). The latter is known as aphasia. Alzheimer’s disease is responsible for approximately 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases (

This past weekend, there was a torrent of support for Alzheimer’s research through fundraising walks. More research is certainly needed, since there are no definitive studies that show reversal or cure for Alzheimer’s disease. This is why prevention is central to Alzheimer’s — and dementia in general — as I discussed in my May 19, 2011, article.

In terms of dementia, there is good news and some disappointing news.
We will start with the good news. Though chronological age is a risk factor that cannot be changed, biological age may be adjustable. There are studies that suggest we may be able to prevent dementia through the use of both lifestyle modifications and medications.

Telomeres’ length and biological age

Biological age may be different from chronologic age depending on a host of environmental factors that include diet, exercise and smoking. There are substances called telomeres that are found at the ends of our chromosomes. They provide stability to this genetic material. As our telomeres get shorter and shorter, our cellular aging and, ultimately, biological aging, increases.
In a recent preliminary case control study, dementia patients were shown to have significantly shorter telomere length than healthy patients (Arch Neurol. 2012 Jul 23:1-8). Interestingly, according to the authors, men have shorter telomere length and may be biologically older by four years than women of the same chronological age. The researchers caution that this is a preliminary finding and may not have clinical implications.

What I find most intriguing is that intensive lifestyle modifications increased telomere length in a small three-month study with patients who had low-risk prostate cancer (Lancet Oncol. 2008;9(11):1048-57). By adjusting their lifestyles, study participants were potentially able to decrease their biological ages.

Beta-carotene and vitamin C effect

Lifestyle modifications play a role in many chronic diseases and disorders. Dementia is no exception. In a small, preliminary case-control study (disease vs. healthy patients), higher blood levels of vitamin C and beta-carotene significantly reduced the risk of dementia, by 71 percent and 87 percent respectively (J Alzheimers Dis. 2012;31:717-724). The blood levels were dramatically different in those with the highest and lowest blood levels of vitamin C (74.4 vs. 28.9 µmol/L) and beta-carotene (0.8 vs 0.2 µmol/L).

The reason for this effect may be that these nutrients help reduce oxidative stress and thus have neuroprotective effects, preventing the breakdown of neurons. This study was done in the elderly, average 78.9 years old, which is a plus, since as we age we’re more likely to be afflicted by dementia.
It is critically important to delineate the sources of vitamin C and beta-carotene in this study. These numbers came from food, not supplements. Why is this important? First, beta-carotene is part of a family of nutrients called carotenoids. There are at least 600 carotenoids in food, all of which may have benefits that are not achieved when taking beta-carotene supplements. Second of all, beta-carotene in supplement form may increase the risk of small cell lung cancer in smokers (Am. J. Epidemiol. 2009; 169(7):815-828).

Foods that contain beta-carotene include fruits and vegetables such as berries; green leafy vegetables; and orange, red or yellow vegetables like peppers, carrots and sweet potato. It may surprise you, but fish also contains carotenoids. In my practice, I test for beta-carotene and vitamin C as a way to measure nutrient levels and track patients’ progress when they are eating a nutrient-dense diet. Interestingly, many patients achieve more than three times higher than the highest beta-carotene blood levels seen in this small study.

Impact of high blood pressure medications

For those patients who have high blood pressure, it is important to know that not all blood pressure medications are created equal. When comparing blood pressure medications in an observational study, two classes of these medications stood out. Angiotensin II receptor blockers (known as ARBs) and angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (known as ACE inhibitors) reduce the risk of dementia by 53 percent and 24 percent respectively, when used in combination with other blood pressure medications.
Interestingly, when ARBs were used alone, there was still a 47 percent reduction in risk, however ACE inhibitors lost their prevention advantage. High blood pressure is a likely risk factor for dementia and can also be treated with lifestyle modifications (Neurology. 2005;64(2):277). Otherwise, ARBs or ACE inhibitors may be the best choices for reducing dementia risk.

Ginkgo biloba disappoints

Ginkgo biloba, a common herbal supplement taken to help prevent dementia, may have no benefit. In the recent GuidAge study, ginkgo biloba was shown to be no more effective than placebo in preventing patients from progressing to Alzheimer’s disease (Lancet Neurol. 2012;11(10):851-859). This randomized controlled trial, considered the gold standard of study designs, was done in elderly patients over a five-year period with almost 3,000 participants. There was no difference seen between the treatment and placebo groups. This reinforces the results of an earlier study, Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory trial (JAMA. 2008;300(19):2253-2262). Longer studies may be warranted. The authors stressed the importance of preventive measures with dementia.

Fish oil: not the last word

Many of us take fish oil supplements in the hope of preventing dementia. However, in a meta-analysis (a group of three randomized controlled trials), the results did not show a difference between treatment groups and placebo in older patients taking fish oil with omega-3 fatty acids (Cochrane Summaries online June 13, 2012). The authors stress that this is not the final word, since studies have been mixed. The longest of the three studies was 40 months yet may not have been long enough to see a beneficial effect. Also participants in the meta-analysis did not necessarily have low omega-3 levels at the beginnings of the studies. This doesn’t necessarily mean fish oil doesn’t work for dementia prevention, it is just discouraging, as the authors emphasize. Fish consumption, however, has shown an inverse association with Alzheimer’s and dementia overall (Neurology. 2007;69(20):1921).

There may be ways to prevent dementia from occurring, whether through lifestyle modifications or through the selection of medications, if they are necessary. It is great that there is such enthusiasm to raise money for dementia research and, in particular, for Alzheimer’s disease. However, it’s just as important to take action now in the form of preventing this disabling disorder.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, go to the website and/or consult your personal physician.

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Associate professor and his team look at stages of frog reproduction: egg to tadpole to frog

An attacking snake causes the eggs of most red-eyed tree frogs to hatch immediately, sending young tadpoles that were developing on leaves in the air to plunge into the water below to escape the slithering predator.

This is just one of many life-history strategies frogs have developed over the more than 200 million years since they started snatching insects and hopping and lunging around waterways.

While just over half the frogs in a survey of 720 species of frogs around the world follow the same life history they employ on Long Island — namely, laying eggs in water, hatching as tadpoles and developing into frogs — the others go through a range of reproductive cycles, including laying eggs out of the water (like the red-eyed tree frog) or even developing directly (i.e., hatching as frogs).

Those frogs that develop directly are found primarily in moist, warm regions in the tropics.

Stony Brook Associate Professor John Wiens, in collaboration with Ivan Gomez-Mestre from the Donana Biological Station in Seville, Spain and Alexander Pyron from George Washington University, wanted to know how these different reproductive strategies evolved and why so many frogs continued to employ the aquatic approaches.

“It seems like laying eggs terrestrially is great because the eggs are out of the water and are protected from aquatic predators, but at the same time, that comes with a cost,” Wiens suggested.

Indeed, the frogs that lay eggs out of the water typically produce fewer offspring. There’s a mechanical explanation for this: the eggs are larger but the momma frogs are the same size. The eggs of direct developers also need to contain all the resources necessary to become a frog.

Frogs that lay eggs in the water, on the other hand, can lay more and smaller eggs, because the tadpoles can feed themselves. The squiggly swimmers can eat algae that they scrape off rocks, bacteria at the bottom of ponds or invertebrates like freshwater shrimp. Some tadpoles, Wiens pointed out, eat other tadpoles and, in some species, the mothers feed the tadpoles with unfertilized eggs.

But, as with the red-eyed tree frog, some of these amphibians have stayed with what might be considered an evolutionarily intermediate stage: instead of choosing direct development or aquatic development, they place their eggs outside water, until they hatch into tadpoles.

In South America, for example, glass frogs have been laying their eggs outside of water for over 50 million years. Once they hatch, tadpoles breathe and eat in the water until they become frogs. For glass frogs, this isn’t a true intermediate stage, because they never evolved into direct development.

For some frogs that make the evolutionary hop from aquatic to direct development, however, the intermediate steps may not be necessary.

“In about half the cases in which direct development evolves, it seems to evolve directly from the primitive mode,” Wiens offered. While it is possible that intermediate stages occurred in these frogs, the results “suggest it would have had to do so relatively rapidly.”

Frog reproductive cycles can provide insight into medical questions or problems.
There is an extinct frog that was a gastric brooder in Australia. That frog kept its eggs and young in its stomach. Somehow, during its reproductive cycle, the frog turned off its gastric juices, allowing its young to grow and develop in the relative safety of its mother’s stomach. Scientists have been hoping this frog’s life cycle might provide additional tools to treat ulcers.

In addition to frogs, Wiens studies salamanders, lizards, snakes and turtles.

He studies the interface between evolution and ecology.

“Using the reconstructed or evolutional history of reptiles and amphibians and other groups, we try to understand how biodiversity originates,” he suggested. He looks at questions such as why there are more species in the tropics.

Wiens lives in Stony Brook with his wife, Ramona Walls, a postdoctoral research associate at the New York Botanical Garden. The scientific couple, who have a daughter in college, enjoy visiting beaches on the island and hiking.

As for frogs, the recent study contradicts some of what scientist had believed for years.

“In many cases, rather than going from having eggs laid in water to eggs laid on land to direct development, frogs jumped the queue, going straight from eggs laid in the water to direct development,” he offered.

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Erland was firefighter, commissioner, trustee

Joe Erland served the community for many years, including through the fire department. Photo from Bryant Funeral Home

Joe Erland, a lifelong Port Jefferson resident and longtime member of the Port Jefferson Fire Department, died on Thursday. He was 55 years old.

Erland dedicated much of his time to serving the Port Jefferson community through both the fire department and the local government. He was a fire commissioner since 1992 and once served the village as a trustee and deputy mayor.

“He was the quintessential local kid,” said Fred Bryant, one of Erland’s longtime friends and the best man at his wedding. “He was a nice person — ‘Mr. Port Jefferson,’ as we like to call him.”

According to Steve Erland, 29, the late Erland’s oldest child, his father died from Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a rare and rapidly progressive disease that affects mental function. He had been diagnosed less than a month ago.

For 37 years, Joe Erland worked as a Long Island Rail Road engineer. He retired from the job to care for his wife Patricia, who passed away from cancer less than four years ago.

Patricia had worked for the railroad as well and the couple married in 1979. They also have two daughters: Michelle, 29, and Andrea, 23.

Born on Oct. 19, 1956, Joe Erland was part of a family who had lived in the Port Jefferson area since the early 1800s. Keeping with the family tradition, Erland, whose grandfather worked as a dispatcher, began volunteering with the Port Jefferson Fire Department 38 years ago. He went on to start the Junior Company and became its first captain.

“He was always a kindhearted gentleman that you could always speak to,” PJFD First Assistant Chief Dave Williams said. “He was very well-liked by all of the members.”

Erland had been made an honorary chief of the fire department two weeks ago, Williams said.
Harold Tranchon, chairman of the board at the Port Jefferson Fire Department, said that Erland was knowledgeable and a great asset to the fire department.

Port Jefferson Chief Constable Wally Tomaszewski recalled Erland’s bravery surpassing his duties with the PJFD. The code chief said Erland saved his life after a man in the village attacked him with a sword in the late 1970s. Tomaszewski called Erland “the pillar of the community.”

As a village trustee, Erland ran for mayor in 2009 against Mayor Margot Garant. While he was disappointed that he lost the election, Bryant said, he was tremendously gracious in his defeat.

“I consider Joe to be a Port Jefferson hero,” Garant said. “I just think he really brought the community together. We need a lot more [of] him around, that’s for sure.”

Steve Erland said his father was humble about his achievements, rarely talking about himself, and had a passion for everything he did.

In his spare time, Joe Erland enjoyed playing softball, golfing and camping. For many years, Erland even danced in Harbor Ballet Theater’s annual Nutcracker performance, in which he played the father, his son said.

Even in the face of adversity, Bryant said the elder Erland always handled things with grace.

“You felt that he was at peace with it,” Bryant said. “He was still that wonderful guy right through the end.”

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Eye tremor may be an early indication of this neurodegenerative condition

Eye tremor may be an early indication Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease, which means there is progressive breakdown of neurons. Traditional medications that focus on dopamine levels and receptors help improve symptoms, sometimes dramatically, yet they have limitations. Medications can’t prevent the breakdown of the neurons themselves. Also, drug benefits may eventually “wear off.”
Parkinson’s typically affects people who are older than 60. There are over one million people in North America directly affected by this disease, but countless family member caregivers are indirectly affected as well (N Engl J Med 1998;339(15):1044).

This article’s focus is to provide an overview of Parkinson’s, including risk factors, diagnosis and alternative treatments that may enhance traditional treatments.

Significance of eye tremors

The common triad of symptoms for diagnosing Parkinson’s are rigidity, tremor and bradykinesia (slow gait). Parkinson’s tremors typically occur in the limbs, but this may not be the whole story. We may also want to look at the eyes. It appears that Parkinson’s disease patients have ocular fixation instability, meaning that when they focus on a point on a computer screen, their eyes oscillate and may have trouble focusing. This happens to a greater degree in the vertical direction than the horizontal (Arch Neurol. 2012;69(8):1011-1017).

In this case-control trial, which compared Parkinson’s patients with healthy participants, 63 percent of the Parkinson’s patients, in addition to eye tremors, experienced difficulty with vision at some point during the testing. The eye area affected was the fovea — part of the retina (back of the eye) responsible for sharp central vision. The authors believe that eye testing may provide an accurate way to diagnose the disease.

Role of pesticides

It appears in meta-analysis (a group of 46 trials) that pesticides increase the risk of Parkinson’s disease (Environ Health Perspect. 2012;120(3):340-347). Insecticides and herbicides appeared to have more impact, whereas fungicides were not associated with increased risk.

The studies were not completely consistent, even though there was a 62 percent overall increased risk. However, it would be premature to declare that pesticides are definitely associated with Parkinson’s disease. There were no randomized clinical trials, and there were several different types of trials analyzed. Many past studies have had mixed results. Also, it was unclear what type of pesticide exposure occurred and at what level. The authors did not definitively say that it was from consumption of foods, but the results are interesting and may give a boost to the validity of organic foods.

Dairy’s potential negative impact

The National Dairy Council wants you to believe that dairy makes you big and strong. However, in the prospective (forward-looking) Cancer Prevention Study II, men who consumed the most dairy were found to have as much as an 80 percent increased Parkinson’s disease risk compared to those who consumed the least (Am J Epidemiol. 2007 May 1;165(9):998-1006).The risk is higher than the pesticide study mentioned above. There was also an increased risk with women, but not as dramatic. When results combined both sexes, there was an overall 60 percent increased risk. Therefore, if there is a family history of Parkinson’s, it might be wise to consider keeping dairy to a minimum.

Dietary effect

In a meta-analysis that looked at the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, results showed diets that focused on fruit, vegetables, whole grain, nuts and seeds, fish and poultry demonstrated a 30 percent reduction in Parkinson’s disease risk (Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Nov;86(5):1486-94). This effect may be due to flavonoids, bioactive compounds in plant-rich diets. It is surmised that these compounds may have neuroprotective effects, because of their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties (Eur J Pharmacol. 2006;545(1):51-64).

Exercise and Parkinson’s treatment

Exercise may be used in concert with therapeutics in treating Parkinson’s disease, and goes beyond medications in helping with motor function and stability. Two that have shown good results are resistance training and tai chi.

Resistance training — specifically weight training — may have significant benefits, according to preliminary data (AAN 2012 abstract #S02.003). The patients involved in the study had Parkinson’s for a mean of seven years and were not on medication. They exercised twice a week for one hour, and they saw a significant improvement in motor function as they gradually increased the level of resistance. This was sustained for the 24-month study. Though this study was small, these results are encouraging.
Postural stability is important to the functionality of a Parkinson’s disease patient. In an NIH-funded randomized clinical trial, the gold standard of trials, tai chi significantly improved postural stability when comparing it to both resistance training and stretching (N Engl J Med 2012;366:511-519). Tai chi was instrumental also in reducing falls — even three months after patients stopped tai chi. The mild to moderate Parkinson’s patients in the study performed tai chi for one hour twice a week.

It is exciting that there may be a more definitive way to diagnose Parkinson’s disease by testing the eyes for tremors, rather than the traditional compilation of symptoms. Even though it is not clear where pesticide exposure occurred, it may be prudent for people with a high risk of Parkinson’s to lean toward an organic, plant-rich diet for prevention.

In addition, if a Parkinson’s disease patient exercised four times a week, alternating between tai chi and resistance training, they would get the best of both worlds: potential improvement in postural stability and in motor skills.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, go to the website and/or consult your personal physician.

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In October, a trip to Hawaii aboard the Spirit should add data to the ongoing study

Ernie Lewis likes to play the cloud game, looking for familiar shapes in our puffy white neighbors overhead. While he’s contemplating whether that one resembles a dog and this one looks like a lizard, he wonders how he might capture the clouds mathematically or model them in a climate system.

A researcher at Brookhaven National Laboratory, Lewis can appreciate the aesthetic wonder of the clouds even as he would like to understand them much better than modern science currently does. Clouds are one of the most confounding variables in predicting and understanding climate.

“The ability to accurately represent clouds and cloud properties in climate models is lacking and is one of the largest gaps in our understanding,” explained Lewis.

The BNL researcher is at the beginning of coordinating an effort to understand how clouds transition from the predominantly stratocumulus versions in Los Angeles to the mostly cumulus types in Hawaii. A stratocumulus cloud is white, grey or a mixture of the two and often looks thick and dark and appears in waves or sheets. Cumulus clouds, by contrast, look harmless and often have more defined boundaries and look like puffy balls of cotton.

Starting in October, a team of scientists under his direction will travel the 2,548 miles back and forth from California to Hawaii aboard the Horizon cargo ship Spirit. They will bring with them their own container of sophisticated equipment and will launch weather balloons four times a day. The balloons, which contain equipment housed in a small container Lewis said looks like a Chinese food take-out package, will send back information about the temperature, pressure and relative humidity, as well as wind speed and direction.

The scientists will use the information to figure out how clouds change along the route through the Pacific.

Scientists aboard the Spirit will coordinate their data with NASA, which is collecting information from its satellites. The team aboard the cargo ship will compare their photos of the clouds from below with what NASA satellites see from above. This will help validate NASA’s satellite retrieval.

Clouds absorb outgoing infrared radiation from the Earth’s surface, which warms the planet. At the same time, clouds scatter incoming infrared, visible and ultraviolet radiation from the sun, which cools it.

“As nearly all of Earth’s energy comes from the sun, understanding the behavior of this incoming radiation and how it is transferred is important to understanding climate,” Lewis wrote in an online update of his research. You can follow his efforts through the link:

Lewis plans to take the two-week trek aboard the Spirit in October. He will also go back and forth in December or January. Others from the project will ride in September to set up the equipment.

On a test voyage, Lewis said the accommodations are quite comfortable, and include such amenities as a weight room and a lounge with movies.

“We are grateful for Horizon Lines and to the captains and crew of the Horizon Spirit,” Lewis offered.

Lewis, who did oceanographic research through Woods Hole in Massachusetts, is especially appreciative of the size and sturdiness of the ship. When he was aboard smaller vessels in the North Atlantic, he’d get seasick, especially during Nor’easters.
Lewis put his oceanographic background to good use when he wrote a book called “Sea Salt Aerosol Production.” Steve Schwartz and Lewis described how the bubbles comprising whitecaps send seawater drops into the air. The drops evaporate and climb into the atmosphere, where some form the seeds of cloud drops.

“It’s a summary of knowledge of how these are produced,” he explained. “It’s a consolidation of the work that has been done” on these white caps.

Lewis, who lives in Calverton, looks to the skies for one of his other passions, birds. An avid birder, Lewis enjoys going to Fire Island in the fall to watch migrating raptors (i.e., predatory birds, like hawks). He also enjoys watching birds at the lab.

Lewis is married to Northeastern University Professor Laura Henderson Lewis. They commute back and forth from Boston to Long Island.

“I hope my research will lead to a better understanding of clouds and their effect on climate,” he explained.

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Diet composition and fitness trump (severe) calorie restriction in benefits

You would think that all of us, if given a choice, would want to live longer. However, in a recent informal survey involving 30,000 participants over the last three years, more than half did not want to live past the 80-year current life expectancy for developed countries ( Aug. 25). This would be surprising, except that the most frequent reason offered had to do with not wanting to be old and debilitated. What if we could propose improving longevity — and health — so that people would feel vivacious throughout their lives, regardless of age?

Calorie restriction impact
Recent thinking has been that if we restrict our calorie intake significantly, by 30 percent, then we are more apt to live longer and healthier lives. That is what we were led to believe by earlier studies in monkeys, like the 2009 University of Wisconsin study (Science. 2009 Jul 10;325(5937):201-4). The problem with the study was that the researchers discounted a number of monkeys who died, claiming this did not have to due with aging.

However, a newly published study with rhesus monkeys reported different results (Nature online Aug. 29). Severely restricting these monkeys’ calories did not increase their longevity, nor did they live healthier lives. These results were disappointing in that calorie restriction is not necessarily the panacea that we thought. This was a 25-year study and the results had been eagerly anticipated.

There were some benefits to calorie restriction, though. For older males and females, heart disease risk was reduced due to lowered triglyceride levels. This was true, ironically, only when calorie restriction was begun when the monkeys were already old.

However, the monkeys — calorie restricted or not — did still experience chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

What about chronic disease?

It appears that chronic disease is the greatest hindrance to achieving or maintaining a better quality of life. Coincidently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released data that show chronic disease is on the rise, with increasing numbers of patients having two or more diseases. Also, it appears that the United States lags behind European nations in reducing the number of preventable deaths, called “amenable mortality.” Most of these deaths are caused by chronic disorders, such as high blood pressure, stroke and cancers. The U.S. is seeing a decline in its rates of preventable deaths but at half the pace of France and the United Kingdom. So what can we do to slow the rise in chronic disease and accelerate the decrease in our rate of preventable deaths?

Diet composition effect

Dietary choices can have a tremendous effect on health. Not surprisingly, poor diet composition is one of the leading contributors to many chronic diseases such as high cholesterol, diabetes and heart disease, and thus amenable mortality rates (Ann Intern Med 2010;153:736-750). The CDC showed that only about one-quarter of Americans consumed the most basic levels of fruits and vegetables recommended.

However, there are several diets that have been promoted because they are known to have powerful effects on reversing this dismal trend of increasing chronic disease such as the DASH diet and the Mediterranean-type diet. In 2010, the DASH diet was highlighted because of its beneficial effects on prevention and treatment of disease ( At the basis of this diet is the emphasis on nutrient-rich foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and whole grains, as well as a modest amount of lean animal protein.

The DASH diet was originally designed to lower blood pressure. In a randomized controlled trial, the gold standard of studies, DASH showed significantly lower systolic blood pressure results compared to those on a standard diet, even though both groups were intentionally given the same level of sodium intake, which is very interesting (N Engl J Med 1997;336:1117-1124). The difference was that DASH increased the amounts of fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy, while lowering saturated fat.

Subsequent prospective studies, such as the Nurses’ Health Study, have borne out the benefits of the DASH diet in lowering heart disease risk in patients followed for a 25-year duration (Arch Intern Med 2008;168:713-720).

Fitness at any age — a greater impact than expected

We used to think that fitness helped delay disease, but a new study suggests that fitness in middle age, defined as people in their 50s, actually decreased the risk of chronic disease significantly. It didn’t just delay it (Arch Int. Med online Aug. 27). Ultimately, fitness at any age seems to provide us with a higher quality of life. This study involved 18,600 participants. There was an approximately 45 percent reduction across the board for both men and women in incidence of the top eight chronic diseases.
The good news is that you may not have to make yourself miserable by eating a very low calorie diet in the hopes of achieving a longer life.

Rather than suffering — or imagining suffering — through severe calorie restriction, why not focus on consistent, modest fitness routines and diets that are rich in nutrients and high in volume? The potential disease-modifying effects could play a crucial role in preventing what we perceive as age-related decline. Then, you can have a positive attitude toward living longer, since you will be able to maintain, if not improve, your health as you age.

Dr. Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, go to the website and/or consult your personal physician.

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BNL’s Chang-Jun Liu works experiments with plants to more easily make biofuel

Plants build a biological fortress around one of their most important jewels: sugars. They fortify a wall with a substance called lignin, whose name in Latin means wood.
When scientists want to turn plants into biofuel, their first step is to delignify the plant, or, as Ronald Reagan might say, to “tear down that wall” to free up the sugars. The process is expensive and reduces the energy efficiency of using plants for biofuel.

Brookhaven National Laboratory biologist Chang-Jun Liu has been working for over four years to figure out how to get plants to produce less lignin, i.e., to produce walls that would be weaker, making it easier to get at those precious sugars.

Liu, Kewei Zhang, Mohammed-Wadud Bhuiya and Yuchen Miao, along with a team from the University of Wisconsin, needed to figure out how to reduce the amount of lignin in the walls without destroying a plant’s ability to grow. Lignin, after all, is necessary to help a plant maintain its structure and climb toward the light.

Liu and the team of scientists looked for ways to send a signal to the plant that the work of putting lignin together was done before the walls of the lignin fortress became too strong. The process of building a complex polymer like lignin involves putting many steps together. What Liu created was a premature “good to go” signal so that the plant produced walls with less lignin.

The scientists tested over a thousand different classes of enzymes that might interfere with the process of forming lignin. By 2009, they had found that an enzyme that naturally occurs in plants but has a different function might do the trick. If they mutated (or genetically altered) two key amino acids in the enzyme, it would change the lignin in such a way that would prevent the molecules from coupling to form a tight bond.
While the amino acid changes worked outside the plant in lab experiments, they didn’t work when used in a live plant. Using BNL’s National Synchrotron Light Source to determine the enzyme’s crystal structure, they discovered more amino acid mutations that worked.

The new enzyme reduced lignin by 24 percent, leading to a 21 percent increase in the release of cell wall sugars.

At the same time, though, the reduced lignin didn’t affect the plant’s ability to develop and grow, a key consideration in the development of biofuel.

“You can’t see any difference in the plant,” Liu explained.

Liu remained aware of the delicate balance between weakening the lignin to gain easier access to the cellulose sugars in the cell wall and the need to leave enough for the plant to survive.

Lignin is involved in water transportation, allowing the leaves at the top of the plant to receive water delivered from the soil. Lignin also provides a physical barrier to prevent a plant from becoming too susceptible to damage from changes to the environment or from insect attacks.

“Within a certain range, the plant can still survive well,” Liu offered. “We think our method compared with others is an advantage.”

Liu has inserted his enzyme into poplar trees to reduce lignin. He is seeking collaborators to test whether the lignin reduction will help in promoting the conversion of wood into bioethanol with laboratory scale fermentation. He is discussing this with scientists at SUNY Syracuse.

Liu recognizes the benefit of contributing to improving the nature of biofuel production.

“Biofuel is one of the solutions to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels,” he explained. “Currently, our ability to convert to biofuel is low.”

Natives of China, Liu and his wife Yang Chen, who works as a special education aid at Rocky Point Middle School, moved to Oklahoma in 1999. That’s where their children, who now attend the middle school and elementary school in Rocky Point, were born.

After a brief stopover in California, Liu joined BNL in 2005. He enjoys hiking and walking in the state park with his family.

As far as his research, Liu hopes it will benefit his children’s generation.

“We have to find a way to secure our energy future,” he explained. “We have to find alternative sources of energy to meet our needs.”

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SBU assistant professor Heather Lynch uses high tech tracking to study avian populations

While Heather Lynch has seen close-up some of the incredible tales of survival, loyalty and determination that documentaries like “March of the Penguins” highlight, she also has firsthand experience with some other penguin realities. For one thing, these birds are incredibly loud, with noise levels that would easily top the decibels reached by a town pool packed with screaming children.

They also stink something fierce.

“You can smell them a mile out to sea,” laughs the assistant professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University. After spending six weeks living among the penguins in the Antarctic, researchers themselves develop such a foul odor that those who bring them back from their stations “step back in horror. The clothes we wear can’t be worn in public. They can only be worn again in Antarctica.”

Lynch, however, said the scientists don’t notice the smell after a while. Instead, they focus on some of the more incredible and inspiring moments from birds that are as awkward on the land as they are graceful in the water. She has seen some of them fall 20 feet off a cliff onto their heads and bounce up like nothing happens.

And while she enjoys taking a step back to appreciate these flocks of water fowl, she journeys to their homes primarily to count their shifting populations. A Princeton-trained physicist, with a PhD from Harvard, Lynch uses her background with numbers to understand bigger picture ecological questions.

For over five years, Lynch has studied the populations of three species of penguins to document how they have been changing and to pinpoint what might be causing those changes.

Global warming, she concluded, is the biggest reason two out of three penguin species populations have declined. The chinstrap and adelies penguins have had a harder time finding food amid warming in the region. The chinstrap has declined at the rate of 1.1 percent per year, while the adelie has lost 3.4 percent of its numbers each year.

The gentoo, however, has come out ahead.

It “can take advantage of environmental conditions to breed at the right time,” Lynch observed. “They also have a more varied diet and are more flexible about where they nest. Its whole life history strategy is focused on flexibility.”
Unlike the other two species, the gentoo does not migrate long distances away from the colony in non-breeding months. Indeed, the gentoo population has risen 2.4 percent per year.

Lynch has been counting penguins not only from her annual visits to their southern home, but also from the comfort of her home and her one-year old laboratory at SBU, where she can track and monitor these birds through satellite images that allow her to see birds with a resolution of 50 centimeters.

Satellites are a “complete game changer,” she declared.

When scientists are in the Antarctic, they often spend considerable time observing and tracking individual penguin populations.

“There are so many populations of penguins that we can’t get to because of the logistical difficulty,” she noted. With satellite images, she can observe and track more groups in the region.

Through her research, Lynch has also concluded that tourists, who numbered over 33,000 from 2010 to 2011, have not had an effect on the birds they so eagerly travel to see.

“We now have strong evidence that tourism is not driving these changes,” Lynch stated.

She has found that reproductive success does not decline in heavily visited colonies and there is no relationship between visitation and populations.

In addition to her population research, Lynch and Ron Naveen, the president of Oceanites, lead a team of about a dozen biologists who conduct fieldwork in the Antarctic. She helped coordinate other scientific studies, including studying moss and lichen biodiversity on the Antarctic Peninsula, and genetic sampling to look at patterns of genetic diversity.

The mother of a daughter who will soon turn three, Lynch, who is a resident of Port Jefferson, has found penguin parenting and dedication inspiring. Lynch met her husband, Brookhaven National Laboratory scientist Matthew Eisaman, in a quantum mechanics class at Princeton.

A proud fifth-generation Red Sox fan, Lynch made a sign on Petermann Island that declared the site the “southernmost point of Red Sox nation.”

Despite the smells and the noise from visiting the Antarctic, Lynch plans to stick with penguins for the long haul.

The Antarctic Peninsula is “one of the most rapidly warming places on our entire planet, so I think it can teach us a lot about how ecosystems respond to climate change,” she said.