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Diet, exercise, stimulating environment helps old dogs learn

According to conventional wisdom, old dogs and new tricks aren't a good match. But a new study of beagles finds that regular physical activity, mental stimulation, and a diet rich in antioxidants can help keep aging canine--and perhaps human--brains in tip-top shape. The research, supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is among the first to examine the combined effects of these interventions and suggests that diet and mental exercise may work more effectively in combination than by themselves.

During the two-year longitudinal study, William Milgram, Ph.D., of the University of Toronto, Elizabeth Head, Ph.D., and Carl Cotman, Ph.D., of the University of California, Irvine and their colleagues found older beagles performed better on cognitive tests and were more likely to learn new tasks when they were fed a diet fortified with plenty of fruits, vegetables and vitamins, were exercised at least twice weekly, and were given the opportunity to play with other dogs and a variety of stimulating toys. The study is reported in the January 2005 Neurobiology of Aging.

Dogs are an important model of cognitive aging, and these findings could have important implications for people. Like humans, dogs engage in complex cognitive strategies and have a more complicated brain structure than many other animals. Dogs also process dietary nutrients in ways similar to humans. And like people, dogs are susceptible to age-related declines in learning and memory, and can develop neuropathology similar to Alzheimer's disease.

"This research brings a note of optimism that there are things that we can do that may significantly improve our cognitive health," says Molly Wagster, Ph.D., program director of the NIA's Neuropsychology of Aging Branch. "In this case, more was better. Although each factor alone was capable of improving cognitive function in older animals, the combination was additive, pointing to a
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Contact: Doug Dollemore
dollemod@nia.nih.gov
301-496-1752
NIH/National Institute on Aging
18-Jan-2005


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