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But the new research has broader implications because it sheds light on normal aging, says Dr. Zoe Arvanitakis, a neurologist at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center.
"We knew at some age you peak and there's a sense it would disintegrate as you grow older. But we didn't have a sense of where that age would be," says Arvanitakis, who next wants to see if myelin and cognitive functions show a similar trajectory.
Bartzokis' research supports a recent report from German scientists, that with age comes a weakening of the system that's supposed to repair broken myelin, adds Dr. Bradley Wise of the National Institute on Aging.
"Any disruption in these neural circuits and networks will have problems for functioning," says Wise, who says the two reports are spurring increased interest into myelin's role in aging. Until recently, most myelin research has focused on multiple sclerosis, where myelin doesn't gradually degrade but disappears.
While much more research is needed, Bartzokis has some practical advice:
Stress hormones, however, may hurt myelin.
He's also testing whether consumption of omega-3 fatty acids -- the oils, found in fatty fish, already recommended for cardiovascular health -- might help maintain myelin.
Lauran Neergaard covers health and medical issues for The Associated Press in Washington.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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