Minding Your Brain: What can happen as we age, and how to avoid itDec 14, 2021
As the Baby Boomers become Seniors, and as they (we!) feel our bodies and minds start to exhibit some of the feared characteristics of aging, more and more research and attention is being directed to the science of aging.
Many of the negative stereotypes and dogmatic beliefs about aging are proving to be false, or not what applies to everyone. New research is showing that we are not doomed by our genes, and they don't control our biology or determine the person we can be.
On the contrary, recent studies reveal that individual nutrition, lifestyle, environment, attitude, and the friends we interact with play a far greater role than genetics in determining how well we age and who thrives in later life.
Aging can be defined in several ways. One is a loss of function, as bones and muscles become weaker and mobility is impaired. And at the cellular and molecular levels, response to hormones decreases with age, mitochondria (which convert fuel to energy) become less efficient and less able to produce energy, and the declining efficiency of an aging body results in higher rates of illness, increasing the risk for disease and death.
And while we often think of the body and mind as being separate, what affects one, affects the other. In fact, it’s now becoming clear that physiologically, there is no separation between the two. To age gracefully requires accepting the fact of aging plus learning and practicing what is needed to keep our bodies and minds in good working order. It means letting nature take its course while at the same time doing everything in our power to live as long and as well as possible, extending lifespan and “health-span” (the number of years of healthy life, free of disease) while reducing “disease-span” (the years lived with noticeable disease that interferes with the quality of living) to as short a period as we can.
And one of the most dominant concerns as we age is literally losing our minds. The most widely seen cognitive change associated with aging is that of memory. And Alzheimer’s is the major cause of age-related cognitive decline with 5.1 million Americans, and 30 million globally, affected.
"As we age, our brains change, but Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are not an inevitable part of aging. In fact, up to 40% of dementia cases may be prevented or delayed. It helps to understand what’s normal and what’s not when it comes to brain health." (CDC)
Yes, there will be changes as we age: for example, the overall volume of the brain begins to shrink. But we now know that our brains remain relatively “plastic” as we age, meaning they’re able to reroute neural connections to adapt to new challenges and tasks. And while Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions cause neurons to become badly damaged and eventually die, in a healthy older person with cognitive aging, the brain’s neurons are basically ok, they’re just working less quickly and less well than earlier in life. And just like with our muscles, we need to use them or lose them.
So what can cause age-related memory loss?
- The hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in the formation and retrieval of memories, often deteriorates with age.
- Hormones and proteins that protect and repair brain cells and stimulate neural growth also decline with age, especially if we don’t eat a nutrient-rich diet including healthy fats and proteins.
- Older people often experience decreased blood flow to the brain, which can impair memory and lead to changes in cognitive skills.
Remember how the health of the body and mind are actually connected? Studies show that healthy behaviours which can help prevent physical issues such as some kinds of cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, may also reduce your risk for cognitive decline. Studies suggest that addressing risk factors may prevent or delay up to 40% of dementia cases.
For example, physical activity has been shown to promote neurogenesis — the formation of new neurons — and so it’s not surprising that exercise would help keep your mind sharp.
Here’s what you can do:
And this list will be familiar!
- Quit smoking
- Maintain a healthy blood pressure
- Be physically active
- Manage stress
- Eat a nutritionally rich diet to maintain a healthy weight and manage blood sugar
- Stay connected to family, friend and community
- Take your brain to the gym with Cognitive Training!
Bottom line, we can refuse to accept the current “model” that says we will inevitably decline at an ever increasing rate until we’ve lost independence, mobility, energy, our minds, and so on— everything that makes us who we are!
Instead there are many strategies we can implement to avoid that scenario!
I’m now developing a Road Map that you can execute to address each of these concerns. So stay tuned!
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