Here at the Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter, were constantly scouring the scientific literature for new findings that will make a difference to readers health. Is it possible for people at any age to improve their habits in ways that could translate into lower risk of chronic disease? says editor Irwin H. Rosenberg, MD. Yes, there are simple things you can do that might help improve your odds.And science is always exploring new ideas to add to that healthy list. The recent research weve rounded up here remains too early to form the basis of recommendations-and many of these findings are observational studies, not designed to prove cause and effect. Nonetheless, says Dr. Rosenberg, These recent and hopeful observations fall into the category of possibly offering simple lessons in how to improve your disease risk and in healthy aging.Some may surprise you; others are fresh twists on healthy habits you already know about. Some are big steps and some are little. All are worth keeping an eye on in the pages of future issues of this newsletter:1 Combining body and brain activity protects your memory. Previous studies have shown that exercising your body and your mind can each help protect your memory as you age. Now a Mayo Clinic study has found a synergistic benefit from doing both. Combining mentally stimulating activities, such as using a computer, with moderate exercise decreased the odds of memory loss more than either activity alone. Researchers studied 926 Minnesotans, ages 70 to 93, who completed questionnaires on physical exercise and computer use. Moderate physical exercise was defined as brisk walking, hiking, aerobics, strength training, golfing without a golf cart, swimming, doubles tennis, yoga, martial arts, using exercise machines and weightlifting. Among mentally stimulating activities participants were asked about, the study singled out computer use because of its popularity. Of the study participants who did not exercise or use a computer, 20.1% were cognitively normal and 37.6% showed signs of mild cognitive impairment. Among participants who did both, 36% were cognitively normal and only 18.3% showed signs of impairment. Results were published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.2 Raisins might be a surprising health food. In what researchers said was the first clinical trial to test raisins effects on blood pressure, people with prehypertension who ate a handful of raisins three times a day sharply reduced their blood pressure. The study, presented at an American College of Cardiology conference, compared snacking on raisins to cookies or crackers among 46 people with slightly elevated blood pressure whose levels ranged from 120/80 to 139/89 mmHg. Over 12 weeks, the raisin-munching group lowered systolic pressure (the top number) as much as 10.2 mmHg. Researchers, from the Louisville Metabolic and Atherosclerosis Research Center, noted that raisins are high in potassium-212 milligrams in about 60 raisins-which is known to lower blood pressure. Dietary fiber in raisins (one gram in 60 raisins) and antioxidants might also contribute to the dried fruits apparent blood-pressure benefits. (Keep in mind that 60 raisins-about an ounce-contain 85 calories, so substitute them for a less-healthy snack.)3 Measuring your waistline and hips helps gauge your heart risk. To get a handle on your risk for sudden cardiac death, break out the tape measure. Excess belly fat, as measured by waist-to-hip ratio, was associated with a 40% greater risk of dying from sudden heart problems (defined as death within an hour of symptom onset) in a study presented to the Heart Rhythm Society. Researchers looked at 15,156 participants in the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study, ages 45-64 at baseline, among whom 301 cases of sudden cardiac death were recorded over 12.6 years. Initially, all three measures of obesity tested (BMI, waist circumference, waist-to-hip ratio) were associated with greater risk; after adjusting for other conditions associated with obesity, however, such as diabetes and hypertension, only waist-to-hip was a significant predictor of risk. Those in the top one-fifth of the ratio had waist-to-hip measures of 0.97 or higher for women and 1.01 or higher for men, indicating a waist roughly as big as the hips. (Calculate your ratio by dividing your waist measurement by your hip measurement.) The lowest one-fifth had ratios of less than 0.82 for women and less than 0.92 for men. Belly fat might be especially dangerous, researchers suggested, because of its effects on inflammation, which in turn can lead to fibrosis in the heart muscle.4 Joggers live longer, happier. The notion of joggers dropping dead in mid-stride, clung to by couch potatoes, has been put to rest by new results from the 35-year Copenhagen City Heart Study. Danish researchers report that joggers among the 19,329 participants enjoyed a 44% reduction in relative mortality risk-equivalent to 5.6 years of extra life in women and 6.2 bonus years for men. Moreover, joggers are enjoying those added years, reporting an overall greater sense of well-being than non-joggers. Researchers suggested that the longevity payoff may be even greater for older joggers, and you dont actually need to do that much to reap the benefits. The optimum activity level in the study was achieved by jogging at a slow to average pace, two to three times a week for a total of 60-150 minutes. Presenting the findings at a scientific conference, scientists concluded, The results of our research allow us to definitively answer the question of whether jogging is good for your health. We can say with certainty that regular jogging increases longevity.5 Fiber might also be good for your heart. Fiber, already known for a variety of other health benefits, may help protect against heart disease, particularly for women. Swedish researchers who compared the dietary habits and prevalence of cardiovascular disease among more than 20,000 adults report that women who consumed the most fiber (primarily from fruits, vegetables and bread) were at almost 25% lower risk than those eating a low-fiber diet. The association was less pronounced among men, although high fiber intake was linked to lower incidence of stroke in men. Researchers analyzed heart disease and 13 nutritional variables, based on food questionnaires, over 13.5 years of follow-up. The study, published in PLOS One, included 8,139 men and 12,535 women in the Swedish city of Malmo, ages 44-73; participants had no history of cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Researchers couldnt say why fiber might be protective, but noted that the gender difference in their results merited further investigation.6 Switching from white to brown rice could reduce your diabetes risk. An increase in food availability and more sedentary lifestyles may be putting Asian populations at risk of type 2 diabetes-compounded by their traditional diets high in white rice. Harvard researchers report in BMJ that people consuming the most white rice were 27% more likely to develop diabetes than those eating the least, and the association was greatest in Asian people (55%). Researchers pooled results from four prior studies totaling 352,384 participants, with follow-up periods ranging from 4 to 22 years. The added diabetes risk among non-Asian participants, 11%, was only on the borderline of statistical significance. But the analysis also found a dose-response relationship: The more white rice people ate, the greater their diabetes risk, with each additional daily serving linked to 11% greater likelihood of developing the disease. That suggests even Western populations might want to opt instead for brown rice, which isnt processed like white rice and retains its whole-grain nutrients.7 Skipping sugar-sweetened beverages may help prevent heart attacks. Men as well as women need to watch their swigging of sugar-sweetened drinks to reduce the risk of a heart attack, according to a new look at data from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. Previously, women in the Nurses Health Study who consumed more sugar-sweetened sodas and other drinks were found to be at greater risk of heart disease. Now results from the Health Professionals study of 42,883 men similarly show that those consuming the most sugar-sweetened drinks (an average of 6.5 per week) were 20% more likely to suffer a first heart attack over 22 years than those skipping sugary drinks. No increased risk was found for artificially sweetened diet sodas, according to findings published in Circulation. Each additional daily serving of sugar-sweetened beverages boosted heart-disease risk by 19%, similar to the 15% added risk found in the nurses study. The association persisted even after adjustment for high cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure, suggesting that sugar-sweetened beverages may impact on coronary heart disease risk above and beyond traditional risk factors.8 Eating like a Mediterranean means better quality of life. The Mediterranean- style diet, already linked to lower risk of chronic diseases, also promotes better health-related quality of life, according to new Spanish research published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Scientists measured adherence to a Mediterranean-style eating pattern among 11,015 university students, who were then followed for four years. At the conclusion of the study, participants scored their own physical and mental health. Those who had most closely followed a Mediterranean- style diet at the start scored higher on the quality of life questionnaire. Researchers said this was the first study to find adherence to the Mediterranean diet seems to be a factor importantly associated with a better health-related quality of life. The dietary pattern, associated with the traditional fare of Mediterranean countries, emphasizes fish, olive oil, whole grains, vegetables, fruits and nuts.9 Low-fat dairy is linked to fewer strokes. In a large Swedish population-based study, greater low-fat dairy consumption was associated with a reduced risk of suffering a stroke. Researchers at the Karolinska Institute followed nearly 75,000 initially healthy men and women for more than 10 years, during which just over 4,000 suffered a stroke. Those consuming the most low-fat milk, yogurt and other dairy products (four servings a day in a country that loves dairy products) were 12% less likely to have a stroke than non-dairy consumers. Overall, as dairy intake went up, the risk of the most common type of stroke went down. Although full-fat dairy products werent associated with a reduced risk, they didnt seem to boost the likelihood of stroke, either. Writing in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers speculated that proteins in milk products and vitamin D in fortified milk may protect against stroke by lowering blood pressure, a key risk factor.10 Get moving to ward off Alzheimers. Not only formal exercise, but any physical activity, such as gardening, housework or walking, may lower your risk of developing Alzheimers disease. Researchers at Rush University Medical Center measured the ordinary activity levels of 716 people without cognitive impairment, average age 82, using a wrist device called an actigraph. The device recorded movement of all kinds for 10 days at the start of the study. Over the next four years, 71 of the participants developed Alzheimers. According to results published in Neurology, those in the bottom 10% of total physical activity were twice as likely to develop the disease as the most-active 10%. Researchers noted that animal studies have shown that moving around more in an enriched environment protects against cognitive decline, possibly by boosting the number of neurons and the size of blood vessels feeding the brain. They added, Even very old people who cant participate in formal exercise may be able to derive the benefit.