Those clarinet lessons helped you tune up for your later years

Getting to Carnegie Hall isn't the only reason to practice, practice, practice.

New research indicates that childhood music lessons could still pay off decades later - even if you've long since stopped playing an instrument - by keeping your mind sharper.

The study looked at 70 healthy adults, ages 60 to 83, who had similar levels of education and fitness and showed no signs of Alzheimer's disease. But they had differing levels of musical training.

The musicians who had studied the longest - 10 years or more - performed the best on cognitive tests. Those who had no musical training had the lowest test scores.

The findings were published in the American Psychological Association journal, Neuropsychology.

The researchers said more research needs to be done to find out if the musical study actually increases cognitive performance, or if some other factor is responsible.

However, "since studying an instrument requires years of practice and learning, it may create alternate connections in the brain that could compensate for cognitive declines as we get older," said lead researcher Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, a clinical neurologist with the University of Kansas Medical Center. - Sandy Bauers

A fatty meal with caffeine chaser impairs glucose tolerance

It is well known that fatty foods are no picnic for the human body, but a new study finds the impact is even worse when you throw in a jolt of caffeine.

Canadian researchers found that in healthy people, a fatty meal followed by coffee temporarily impairs glucose tolerance to the level of a pre-diabetic person, said Marie-Soleil Beaudoin, first author of the paper in the Journal of Nutrition.

Beaudoin and her coauthors, from the University of Guelph, measured the glucose tolerance of 11 young men six hours after they drank a lipid beverage that was the equivalent of a high-fat meal. The participants' blood-sugar levels were 32 percent higher than when they had not ingested the fatty drink.

On another occasion, the scientists measured glucose tolerance when the men followed their fatty meal with the equivalent of two cups of caffeinated coffee five hours later. In that case, the subjects' blood sugar levels were 65 percent higher than they were without either fat or caffeine. The fat-caffeine combination appears to interfere with metabolism by impairing communication between the gut and pancreas, Beaudoin said. - Tom Avril

Ecstasy use, memory problems linked to smaller hippocampus

Previous research has found that users of MDMA, the recreational drug known as Ecstasy, can suffer memory problems. Now a study by Dutch researchers suggests why: They have a smaller hippocampus - a key brain region when it comes to memory.

The authors of the study, in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, used MRI scans to measure the hippocampus of 10 Ecstasy users and seven nonusers. The Ecstasy users had been drug-free for more than two months, on average, and typically had used more than 280 tablets in the previous 61/2 years.

The hippocampal volume in the Ecstasy users' brains was, on average, 10.5 percent smaller than those in the nonusers. Both the users and nonusers were men in their 20s and reported similar levels of exposure to other drugs and alcohol.

The authors could not specifically say that Ecstasy use caused a smaller hippocampus because they did not measure the drug-users' brains beforehand. But they said the drug seems to be the culprit, citing previous reports of individual Ecstasy-using patients who experienced hippocampal swelling followed by atrophy. - T.A.

Newer oral contraceptives may raise slight risk of blood clots

Two new studies released last week show that while oral contraceptives pose little risk for most non-obese women, the slight risk of blood clots, or venous thromboembolism, increases a bit more with the newer generation of pills. These newer pills, which contain a form of progesterone called drospirenone, are sometimes marketed under the brand names as Yaz or Yasmine.

One study used a database collected by PharMetrics, a company that collects information on claims paid by managed care plans. The other used data from the United Kingdom General Practice Research Database.

The studies concluded that the clot risk for the new pills was two to three times that associated with the older pills, which contain levonorgestrel and are often sold as generics. Overall, studies show that oral contraceptives increase a person's risk, on average, about four-fold, said the study's lead author, epidemiologist Susan Jick of the Boston University School of Medicine.

She said that women should know all the facts about birth control pills, but shouldn't necessarily be scared away by the blood clot risk. The newer pills add another choice, and the way women respond to contraceptive pills is very individual, she said. Some women may find the newer pills cause less bloating or improve their acne. All things being equal, though, the older formulations are safer.

There are many more serious risk factors for blood clots, she said, including surgery, certain types of injuries that restrict mobility, and pregnancy. - Faye Flam