Time to panic?
Not necessarily. “The truth is, 80% of people over the age of 70 do not have significant memory loss,” said Rudolph Tanzi, Ph.D., director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in a recent article in AARP.
However, the normal aging process does bring an increased risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and general cognitive slowdown, so developing a lifestyle that keeps your brain healthy is extremely important.
By Andrew Shaughnessy
Full PDF here.
The Aging Brain
Research shows that most mental capabilities peak in the mid- to late-20s. After that, we face an inevitable decline in “fluid intelligence,” which includes short-term memory and the speed at which we process new information and solve problems. Senses lose their edge, reaction time slows, and our ability to multi-task diminishes. Brain volume decreases, dendritic connections (the brain’s network) die off, and dopamine depletes at the rate of 5-8% per decade. Myelin, which isolates neurons, deteriorates, and the number of nerve fibers carrying messages through the central nervous system decreases. Bottom line: the brain, like the body, breaks down and slows down as we age.
However, some good things happen to the aging brain as well. You won’t be as quick as you once were, but wisdom and experience make the golden years formational. Current research indicates that myelin loss seems to occur mostly on the part of neurons responsible for learning new things, while long-term memory stays intact, and complex reasoning skills improve into middle age. Additionally, research shows that as we age we become more empathetic and emotionally stable. Synapses* firing more slowly or not, it’s no accident that nearly all CEOs are over the age of 50.
Keeping Your Brain in Shape
More and more, scientists and medical professionals are arguing that maintaining a high functioning brain well into old age is a product of a lifetime of care. Public health circles have long emphasized the importance of staying physically active as we age. More recently, staying cognitively active has become a focus. And the more scientists learn, the more they realize that physical and mental health go hand in hand. Keeping your brain healthy into middle age and beyond means pursuing a holistically healthy lifestyle: staying active physically, socially, occupationally, and intellectually.
In fact, research shows that physical exercise may even have a higher impact on keeping a brain active than mental stimulation. A recent study published in the journal Neurology reported that: “People in their 70s who participated in more physical exercise, including walking several times a week, had less brain shrinkage and other signs of aging in the brain than those who were less physically active.”
Why? Many point to the fact that physical exertion increases the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain. Synapses fire off, new nerve cells develop, and
endorphins fight off depression and anxiety. The Mayo Clinic calls exercise the “best bet” when it comes to preventing or delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Beyond the gym, a healthy brain needs to be challenged. As we age, we tend to stick to the same activities, social circles, and routines that we’re used to because, well, it’s comfortable. It’s easy. But challenging the mind in new ways makes for better development and less atrophy. Think of it like cross training for physical fitness—your brain needs to be exercised and stretched in areas you don’t use every day.
So be a lifelong learner. Make it fun. Read a wide variety of books, teach yourself Bengali, learn to play blues piano, write letters to people you love, build something with your hands. Studies have shown that those who engage in a variety of mind-sharpening activities, not just in middle and old age but across a lifetime, have less buildup of beta-amyloid protein (the plaque that builds up with Alzheimer’s).
Be involved in your community and socialize regularly. According to the Mayo Clinic, an active social life can help keep depression and stress at bay, both of which can contribute to memory loss. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, low fat proteins, B-vitamins, and whole grains can help manage your weight, decrease blood pressure, and keep both your heart and your brain healthy, while smoking and excessive drinking significantly increase the risk factor for dementia and early brain aging.
Then there’s the rise of computer-based “brain training” games, in which the user performs targeting tasks intended to exercise the brain like a muscle, maximizing its performance: recalling increasingly complex visual patterns, for example. Specially designed “brain gyms” for patients with Alzheimer’s and cognitive impairment seem to have potential, though mo
st are still in the early research stages. The computer games remain, but a more holistic approach includes social interaction, exercise, and lifestyle and nutritional coaching.
No “Quick Fix” Yet
There is no surefire way to prevent Alzheimer’s or memory loss. But here’s the take-away: What you do in your 30s and 40s matters. Foster lifelong patterns of behavior that keep you physically and mentally active. A lifestyle geared towards a healthy brain begins now.