1. B vitamins beat dementia

    I know plenty of seniors who would pop pretty much any pill -- risks and costs be damned -- if it meant they'd never have to battle Alzheimer's disease.

    But it turns out they may not have to face any risks at all to get a leg up on dementia -- because the latest research confirms that simple, safe and widely available B vitamins can dramatically slow the rate of cognitive decline.

    Researchers gave 266 men and women older than 70 either a placebo or a blend of B vitamins -- 0.5mg of B12, 0.8mg of folic acid, and 20mg of vitamin B6 -- and tracked them for two years.

    Those who got the real vitamins did 70 percent better on memory tests than those who took the placebo. They improved in just about every way, with real boosts in semantic memory (the memory of facts and concepts) as well as overall global cognition.

    And the biggest boost of all came in "episodic memory," or the part of the mind we use to remember our daily tasks. That's the first part of the mind to go in dementia patients, so you can see why these results are so exciting.

    The good news doesn't stop there: In some cases, patients who were already battling memory lapses before the study actually improved their memory after two years of B vitamins.

    The researchers say the biggest benefits were seen in patients with the highest levels of homocysteine at the start of the study. (Homocysteine is an inflammation marker with strong links to dementia, heart disease, and more.) Those benefits went well beyond anything measured on cognitive tests.

    In fact, patients who took the vitamins had real and visible changes in the physical structure of the brain itself.

    Before I get into that, a little background: All our brains shrink a little as we age. It's a frightening thought, but it's perfectly normal.

    In dementia patients, however, the brains often shrink at a much faster rate -- so researchers believe anything that can slow that loss of gray matter may also slow or stop the disease itself.

    And the vitamins were able to slow that loss of gray matter by an average of 30 percent overall and 50 percent in those with high homocysteine levels -- with one patient seeing a shocking improvement of 500 percent.

    It's clearly too early to say whether B vitamins can stop or even slow Alzheimer's disease. But it's also pretty clear you need more of the Bs than the tiny levels the powers-that-be recommend -- so talk to your doctor today about adding a B complex to your regimen.

  2. Question authority -- question your doctor

    For years, the doctor-patient relationship went a little something like this: Patient visits the doctor... doctor tells the patient what to do.

    That's the way it still is in many practices, and that might even describe your relationship with your own doctor. But you're perfectly capable of making decisions about your health -- and two new campaigns are urging you to do just that.

    And it starts with three simple questions:

    1) What are my options?

    2) What are the possible benefits and risks of those options?

    3) How likely are the benefits and risks of each option to occur?

    Those three questions, part of a new campaign from Britain's Cardiff & Vale University Health Board, can dramatically change your understanding of both your diagnosis and the possible treatments -- and could lead you to rethink everything from your drug prescriptions to surgical recommendations.

    But I'd add one more to the list -- one that's even more important, even if you won't get a straight answer to it from some doctors:

    4) What are my alternatives?

    Believe it or not, that very question is actually one our own government is encouraging you to ask -- although, let's face it, they're almost certainly referring to choosing one med over another rather than a natural supplement over a dangerous drug.

    In any case, it's a crucial question that you should ask any time you're handed a treatment plan -- and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is urging more patients to ask it as part of its "Questions are the Answer" campaign.

    Hard to believe I'm saying this about a government health program, but they're actually on the right track here.

    The agency even recommends three crucial questions for anyone facing surgery -- questions too many people never bother to ask:

    • Why do I need surgery?
    • Are there other ways to treat my condition?
    • How often do you perform this surgery?

    The best part of this campaign is the website, which features a "Question Builder" to help you create a customized list you can print out and bring to your doctor.

    Doctors might not be used to getting all these questions from their patients -- but a good doctor won't be afraid to answer them.

  3. Playgrounds are too safe

    I'm sure many parents would bubble wrap their little ones before sending them out if they could, and some practically do these days. But they don't really need that protection -- because playgrounds have gotten so safe and dull that kids no longer have a chance to engage in the types of mildly risky play that's such an important part of development.
  4. How not to quit smoking

    A long list of risks just got even longer: The feds now say the anti-smoking drug Chantix can boost the odds of a heart attack.
  5. Teen texting tied to risky behavior

    If there are any teens in your life, you know the drill: Don't try to talk to them, even if they're in the same room as you. Send a text message instead. But new studies show that all those text messages come with real risks, and not just in the form of thumb and wrist pain. One new study finds...

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