Tag Archives: old


Old forests are better at dealing with climate change, study finds

Older forests are less vulnerable to climate change than their younger counterparts — particularly in regards to carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity levels.


Image via Pixabay.

The study, led by members from the University of Vermont, looked at how climate change is expected in alter forests across Canada and the United States. All in all, they report, forests are less sensitive to higher temperatures and precipitation levels as they age, being better able to retain biodiversity, timber production, and the ability to store carbon.

The old that is strong does not wither

“This study shows that older forests in the Upper Midwest to New England are uniquely resilient to climate,” says Dominik Thom, lead author and postdoctoral researcher in UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and Gund Institute for Environment.

“Our finding that essential services are better protected against climate change by older forests is a milestone in the debate on how to prepare our forests for the uncertain environmental conditions ahead.”

In short, the study found that age helps protect forests from the effects of climate change.

The team worked with a huge body of data recorded from over 18,500 forest plots from Minnesota to Maine, and Manitoba to Nova Scotia. One of their main focuses was to identify which areas should take priority in regards to forest climate adaptation efforts. Younger forests east and southeast of the Great Lakes were less resilient to climate change, showing declines in carbon storage, timber, and biodiversity compared to older ones.

“Our study identifies opportunities to make forest management more adaptive to global change,” says William Keeton, forestry professor in UVM’s Rubenstein School and Gund Institute.

“This could include enhancing older forest conditions on landscapes within reserves, for example, and using extended cutting cycles and restorative forestry practices in working forests.”

The authors found that forests’ climate resiliency increased with age; older forests are more structurally-complex, they explain, with trees growing at multiple heights and larger canopy gaps, which free up growing space and increase light availability for a mix of species. Scientists usually count forests as ‘old’ over the age of around 150 years.

“This research presents new and entirely novel findings that are sure to push the needle in our understanding of forest dynamics,” says Keeton.

“The types of ecosystem services and biodiversity provided on forested landscapes today are likely to change dramatically into the future, both as forests age and our climate changes — a message relevant to anyone interested in forests.”

The paper “The climate sensitivity of carbon, timber, and species richness covaries with forest age in boreal–temperate North America” has been published in the journal Global Change Biology.


Engaging in cultural activities can stave off depression in old age

Hit the movies when you’re feeling down, or go to the theater. It’ll help.


Image via Pixabay.

Regularly attending cultural events can help fight depression as we age, a new study reports. The researchers showed that older people can cut their risk of developing depression by 32% simply by attending cultural activities once every few months. The more you do it, the better it works, too: people attending at least one such event per month lowered their risk of developing depression by 48%.

Culturally fit

The results come from a decade-long study that looked at the relationship between cultural engagement — plays, movies, concerts, and museum exhibits — and the risk of developing depression. That study, the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), followed roughly 2,000 men and women, all from England and over the age of 50, for 10 years.

The ELSA used interviews and surveys to gauge both depression incidence and the frequency with which study participants attended the theater, concerts, the opera, movies, art galleries and/or museums.

The present study’s lead author, Daisy Fancourt of University College London, suggested that there are probably many positive “side effects” generated by cultural participation, all of which seem to tone down the risk of developing depression.

“For example, going to concerts or the theater gets people out of the house,” she said, “which reduces sedentary behaviors and encourages gentle physical activity, which is protective against depression,” Fancourt explains.

“It also provides social engagement, reducing social isolation and loneliness. Engaging with the arts is stress-reducing, associated with lower stress hormones such as cortisol, and also lower inflammation, which is itself associated with depression.”

These activities are mentally-stimulating, which makes them useful for reducing the risk of depression, but also help prevent cognitive decline as we age. By stimulating the mind, evoking positive feelings, and creating opportunities for social interaction, such activities help enhance overall mental health. Fancourt adds that cultural engagement can also help trigger the release of dopamine — often called the “feel good” neurotransmitter

On the whole, the end result is likely not only a lower risk for depression but also lower risk for dementia, chronic pain, and even premature death, she concludes.

“So in the same way we have a ‘five-a-day’ [recommendation] for fruit and vegetable consumption, regular engagement in arts and cultural activities could be planned into our lives to support healthy aging,” she advised.

It has to be noted that the paper spotted an association, not a robust cause-and-effect relationship. Still, the results held true for all participants, regardless of age, gender, health, income, educational background, relationships with family and friends, participation in non-arts related social groups, or their exercise habits (or lack of). The results even held apparently for those with a predisposition to depression.

So why not book a ticket to a nearby play? It will help gently set you back into motion after the holidays (and all the food) and might just stave off depression in your later years. Win-win.

The paper “Cultural engagement and incident depression in older adults: evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing” has been published in The British Journal of Psychiatry.

Stanford students brew 5,000 year old Chinese beer, say it’s fruity and tasty

Stanford students have re-created an ancient Chinese beer and found that it tastes “surprisingly palatable”.

Image via Youtube.

Last year, Stanford Sir Robert Ho Tung Professor in Chinese Archaeology Li Liu and her team gleaned a 5,000-year-old Chinese beer recipe from residues left on ceramic vessels at a dig in northeast China. Analysis showed that the ancient brewers used grains such as millet or barley, a native species of grass named Job’s tears, and small amounts of yam and lily root.

That’s a fancy beer. I wonder what it would taste like. Well thankfully, scientists seem to have developed a taste for ancient brews, as you can see here and here. The latest addition to that list is Liu’s ancient beverage.

Wonder no more!

In the name of science, Liu’s students have re-brewed the brew, had a swig and detailed it all in a paper. Ah, young science.

“The class gives students an opportunity to not only experience what the daily work of some archaeologists looks like but also contribute to our ongoing research,” said Stanford doctoral candidate and paper co-author Jiajing Wang.

“Archaeology is not just about reading books and analyzing artifacts,” said Liu “Trying to imitate ancient behavior and make things with the ancient method helps students really put themselves into the past and understand why people did what they did.”

The students started with malting by sprouting red wheat seeds in water. After sprouting, these seeds were crushed, placed back in water, and left to mash at 65 degrees Celsius (149 Fahrenheit) for one hour. The last step was to give this mash a week to ferment at room temperature.

Students say that the beer tastes more like a cider with its strong fruity aroma and was surprisingly tasty.

“The beer that students made and analyzed will be incorporated into our final research findings,” doctoral candidate Jiajing Wang, who assisted Liu in the original research, said in a news release.

In that way, the class gives students an opportunity to not only experience what the daily work of some archaeologists looks like but also contribute to our ongoing research.”

Liu’s class is called “Archaeology of Food”, and aims to understand ancient cultures through the food and drinks they consumed. Her team’s research on ancient Chinese beer jugs showed that barley was introduced in East Asia 1,000 years earlier than previously documented.

“Our results suggest the purpose of barley’s introduction in China could have been related to making alcohol rather than as a staple food,” Liu said.

The full paper “Revealing a 5,000-y-old beer recipe in China” has been published in the paper PNAS.

Spanish publisher wins rights to a manuscript no one can — but everyone is dying to — read

A tiny publisher in Spain has been given permission to copy the 15th-century Voynich Manuscript, one of the world’s most mysterious and least understood books. Hopefully, making the book available to the public will help decipher its elusive contents.

Page 68th of the manuscript is just as obscure as the rest of it. But with more circles.
Image belongs to the public domain.

Curiosity is an incredibly powerful force, one that the Voynich Manuscript awakes like almost no other work. This book was written in the 15th-century in a language either unknown to us or shrouded in code. Throughout the centuries some of the brightest minds alive, including top cryptologists such as William Friedman who helped break Japan’s “Purple” cipher during the second world war, have tried to make sense of it all — though never succeeded. The aging work is currently housed in the Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library vault, and very few people are allowed to actually touch it. Those that did, such as Juan Jose Garcia, the director of the small Spanish publishing house Siloe, will never forget the book’s allure.

“Touching the Voynich is an experience,” Garcia told Agence France-Presse. “It’s a book that has such an aura of mystery that when you see it for the first time … it fills you with an emotion that is very hard to describe.”

Garcia fought tooth and nail to get permission to touch the book, and that’s not all. After a 10-year appeal for access, Siloe (which specializes in making facsimiles of old manuscripts) has secured the rights to “clone” the document. Exactly 898 replicas of the manuscript will be re-created down to the last detail, every smudge, crease, or hole in paper meticulously copied. Because nobody has any clue what’s actually in the book, these little details might hold the key to deciphering it — or they might be just that, smudges, creases, and holes. With more eyes examining the book, hopefully someone will soon find out.

What we know so far

Not much, to be honest. The book was initially attributed to a 13th century English Franciscan friar and suspected wizard Roger Bacon, whose interest in alchemy finally landed him in jail. Once carbon dating became available, the manuscript’s creation was placed between 1404 and 1438, and then speculation abounded — everything and anything from da Vinci, to aliens, has been suggested as the author of the book. As Garcia told the AFP,  the author could have been a genius, but “could also have been a sadist, as he has us all wrapped up in this mystery”.

The mysterious writing has never been deciphered.

Since its author is unknown, the book is named after its finder, Wilfrid Voynich, a Lithuanian antiquarian who reportedly purchased it in 1912 from Italian Jesuits, and propelled it into the limelight.

Not much bigger than a modern-day paperback, the manuscript is more than 200 pages long and includes several large fold-outs. The pages are covered in drawings that extend from the borders of the page and cradle the text in colorful and surreal images of plants, human figures, and unknown constellations. The text itself is frustratingly obscure.

“It doesn’t match any other language that’s been seen in any other book,” said Reed Johnson, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, back in 2013.

“The drawings often have labels, which would seem to offer a route to deciphering the code. But that hope has proved to be an illusion,” he says, adding that trying to decipher the code is like trying to climb a wall, but realizing all the easy hand-holds are actually just painted on, so you can never get a grip on it.

“My own experience with this manuscript has only been three years, so I’m a rank amateur,” he adds.

How this will help us learn more

Beinecke library also gets thousands of emails each month from people claiming to have decoded the book, says Rene Zandbergen, a space engineer who runs a blog on the manuscript. Visitors to their online library overwhelmingly access this piece of work.

“More than 90% of all the access to their digital library is only for the Voynich manuscript,” he said.

And it’s exactly because of this interest that Yale decided to have facsimiles done, says Raymond Clemens, curator of the Beinecke library.

“We thought that the facsimile would provide the look and feel of the original for those who were interested,” he said.

“It also enables libraries and museums to have a copy for instructional purposes and we will use the facsimile ourselves to show the manuscript outside of the library to students or others who might be interested.”

Siloe always publishes 898 copies of every work it reproduces (a palindrome number,) after their first successful venture which sold 696 copies. Each of these will sell for around €7,000 to €8,000 (US$7,880 to US$9,000) a pop, which isn’t that much when you consider the painstaking work that will go into each one. Nearly 300 copies have already been pre-ordered, confirming the huge interest people have in this work.

The high price means that while a couple of the copies will be picked up by well to do enthusiasts, the bulk of them will reach libraries and research institutions where they will be available so someone can hopefully wrap their head around the book.

It will take the company roughly 18 months to get the first copies ready, counting since April when the original in Yale was photographed. Siloe workers are now practicing their hand on mock-ups to get the script and drawings looking just right, before setting to work on the facsimiles. The paper to be used is made from a company-developed paste and will receive a special treatment so it feels like the stiff parchment of the original. All the details and imperfections will be recreated using special tools in a process kept secret by Garcia. Once complete, the pages will be put together and treated to look older.

But if you can’t wait until the copies are ready, you can go ahead and try your code-breaking skills on the digitized pages available here.


Asthma drug reverses aging in the brain of mice

Science and medicine advances have stretched the life span further than ever. That’s good news, but the quality of life is also important. People live longer now than ever, but they also live longer in sickness and suffering of both body and mind. Concerning the latter, a clear, sharp mind can be a rare thing once you pass a venerable age, but a team at the Paracelsus Medical University in Austria may be on to something. Working with mice, the researchers gave some of the elderly rodents a common drug called Montelukast that’s used to treat asthma in children. To everyone surprise, the old rats started growing new brain cells and performed almost as well as the young in cognitive tests. If only the drug worked on people, too – we might find out soon.


Image: Pixabay, stevepb

Once old age precipitates, the brain homeostasis changes. Cognitive skills start to decline and the risk to develop dementia or neurodegenerative diseases increases dramatically. The pathological hallmarks of an ‘aged brain’ are neuroinflammation, in particular microglia dysfunction, reduced synaptic densities, blood–brain barrier (BBB) disruption and low levels of neurogenesis (new neurons forming). If you could have a drug that counteracts some of these hallmarks – preferably all – than one can assume that cognitive functions will be improved. That or some young blood. No joking. One previous study showed that after  heterochronic parabiosis ( two animals joined together surgically to create shared circulation system), old mice had their brain rejuvenate by the blood of young mice. Vice-versa, young mice exposed to the old blood caused premature ageing of the young brain and led to impaired cognition.

 Once its circulatory system was connected to that of a younger mouse, the old mouse experienced reversed aging in muscle and in the brain. V. Altounian/Science

Once its circulatory system was connected to that of a younger mouse, the old mouse experienced reversed aging in muscle and in the brain. V. Altounian/Science

Chemokines – including CCL11 (also known as eotaxin) – found in the plasma of old mice were identified as one of the leading causes of reduced neurogenesis. So, the Austrian researchers thought: “are there  additional mechanisms that are originally related to peripheral inflammatory conditions such as asthma?”. Acute asthma attacks are often triggered by allergens or exercise. Inflammatory molecules called leukotrienes are one of several substances which are released by mast cells during an asthma attack, and it is leukotrienes which are primarily responsible for the bronchoconstriction. Thankfully leukotrine signaling has been extensively studied and leukotriene receptor antagonists such as the drug montelukast have been successfully developed to treat asthmatic patients.

The next obvious step followed: give the montelukast drug to some mice and see what happens at a cognitive level. In the first set of experiments, the researchers used two groups of mice: one aged 20-months or so (the elderly) and the other aged four months. The mice were given montelukast for six weeks, at the end of which the researchers found the drug had reversed age-related brain inflammation and encouraged the creation of new brain cells in the old mice.

Before giving the mice the drug, the researchers recorded the latency times mice had for finding a hidden platform over 5 consecutive training days in a Morris water maze test. Montelukast treatment significantly improved task learning in old rats to a level comparable to young ones, so that on day 5 the drug-treated old animals found the platform as fast as their young counterparts. Learning in young animals was not affected by the drug treatment.

“Montelukast, by targeting these mechanisms, might be able to modulate and to improve a number of neurological functions in various diseases of the central nervous system,” the researchers write in Nature.

“In summary, we demonstrate for the first time the possibility of using montelukast to functionally rejuvenate the aged but otherwise healthy brain. Oral treatment with montelukast restored learning and memory in old rats, which was significantly impaired in comparison to young animals. Considering the various beneficial effects of montelukast on CNS functions in different animal models, this illustrates that leukotriene receptors and their underlying signalling mechanisms might contribute to the development of many neurological deficits, and that montelukast, by targeting these mechanisms, might be able to modulate and to improve a number of neurological functions in various CNS diseases.”

This is definitely something to follow, and hopefully we’re see a clinical trial soon. After all, the drug is already here and it’s safe.

Picturing yourself aging well may change your life

As you probably know (but may very well choose to ignore), ageism is going rampant throughout virtually every civilized country in the world, and this is by no means a casual thing, but it’s quite systematic, regardless of sex. What’s even worse, even old people think the least about themselves in terms of intelligence, competence and overall abilities. It’s hard to say if this is because of the world around them or because when they were younger, they believed it too.

But as a recent study conducted by Becca Levy and Martin D. Slade of the Yale School of Public Health, along with Alan B. Zonderman and Luigi Ferrucci from the National Institute on Aging Intramural Research Program pointed out, those who believe in those stereotypes tend to fulfill them, and this doesn’t affect just the elder. As it turns out, young, healthy, “ageist” people have an increased risk of heart disease along the years.

They analyzed several hundreds of people who have been studied for decades; when these volunteers signed up more than 40 years ago, they were required to give out informations about themselves and share some thought on several topics. Researchers found a striking link between ageism at a younger age and the risk of cardiovascular diseases, and this diseases could not be explained by any risk factors (that include smoking, depression, genetic traits, cholesterol, etc).

When scientists drew the line and added, what they found out was quite simple: embracing stereotypes about old people at a young age could have far reached implications for your health. This is the first study about people growing into the same people they have disdain for.