Applied Science

(This column first appeared in the February 22, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    I am an avid reader of science reports. And like too many of us, I find myself applying their text to myself. When I read about a newly discovered and exceedingly rare disease, for example, I often notice that the symptoms fit quite closely my own condition. I am left concerned that I might harbor that unusual illness.

    Consider another example of personally applied science. I have just read an interesting report by Judy McBride, "Can Foods Forestall Aging?" in Agricultural Research, a journal of the U. S. Department of Agriculture Research Service. Now this is definitely aimed at me. I am not only aging, I am already old.

    And the subtitle of the paper, "Some with high antioxidant activity appear to aid memory," applies directly to me. Several times each week I have to enlist my wife's assistance in finding something I have misplaced in my office: a book or paper I have only recently been reading and now cannot find. Invariably she turns it up where I have already looked several times. So surely this article will suggest help for my disintegrating memory. I read on.

    The article is, as those titles suggest, about dietary antioxidants. I am told that antioxidants "subdue oxygen free radicals." And, Ms. McBride continues, oxygen free radicals are "behind many of the maladies that come with aging including cardiovascular disease and cancer." Other possible outcomes are "diminished brain function associated with aging and disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases." Scary stuff. I am already an enthusiastic fan of the Tufts researchers who are determining the effects of foods with high ORAC -- oxygen radical absorbance capacity.

    Their findings are based on studies involving rats. Now that might be a problem for some readers; it is not for me. Over the years I have been referred to as a rat many times. That movie phrase -- "you dirty rat" (was it Bogart or Cagney who said it first?) -- has even been applied to me occasionally. So I will have no problem with this research.

    And the results are interesting. In motor skills -- what we might call athleticism -- the aging rats fed high ORAC foods did no better than their peers. (Here of course, aging is relative. Rats seldom live three years.) But ORAC-fed rats had significantly better long term memory and showed that they retained more of their learning ability. "That's significant," says behavioral psychologist Barbara Shukitt-Hale. "It's really difficult to effect a change in behavior." Sounds good to me.

    Meanwhile neuroscientist James Joseph has found that an ORAC-enhanced rat diet improved the performance of brain cells in a section of the brain called the neostratium whose reduced functioning has been associated with aging. Even better.

    But now comes the best part of the article. A table is presented listing "Top Antioxidant Foods." At the head of the list of fruits are prunes -- with raisins, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries following some distance behind. And at the top of the vegetable list, led only by kale, is spinach. Brussels sprouts, alfalfa sprouts, broccoli florets and beets trailing.

    I am an immediate believer. Never mind the science: I just happen to love prunes and spinach. (One reason: I retain my childhood affection for Popeye.) I also like tea, something not mentioned in this article but touted as an antioxidant-rich drink on a recent PBS program.

    So I am off to the store to load up. But first I will write out my list: prunes, spinach, green tea. Otherwise I'll get to the store and wander up and down the aisles trying to remember why I'm there. -- Gerry Rising