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By Dr. Kenneth Solomon
The brain and mind remain great mysteries of modern medicine. The gross anatomy is fairly well understood, but the functioning is not.
The brain does age–as we do–often with profound effects on cognitive abilities, yet the concepts of what is happening and why are unclear.
The same is true regarding slowing down that process.
This article will explore “normal” brain aging–not the effects of brain disease such as Alzheimer’s.
It is generally believed that the brain functions at its peak when we are in our mid-20’s. Fluid intelligence or short-term memory is greatest at a young age and begins to decline after the age of 35.
On the other hand, crystalized intelligence, a measure of fact and knowledge accumulation, may not peak until we reach our 70’s.
Generally speaking, younger people are better students and learn activities such as video games more quickly, while older people are captains of industry and leaders of countries. How long and well we keep these abilities may have much to do with our lifestyle, which we can control.
Many factors cause the brain to age. Neurons, or brain cells, die or lose their efficiency. Most neurons are irreplaceable. Neuron loss is a major contributor to brain disease. Synapses, or neuron connectors, also decrease in number and density, hampering brain communication.
Something called “glia,” the brain cells around neurons that produce myelin responsible for sheathing nerve fibers and allowing electrical conduction, also becomes less efficient.
There are many reasons behind these aging processes.
Normal cell metabolism often produces a reactive form of oxygen that can damage neurons. As we age, our immune system produces fewer enzymes needed to dispel these toxic products and we experience more inflammation, which adversely affects all the cells in the brain.
For example, the “hippocampus” is the area of the brain responsible for new memories and capable of producing new neurons. We know that inflammation directly decreases neuron formation and connectivity in this area. More importantly, this can be reversed by reducing inflammation and oxidation.
There are many ways to do that, and they all involve lifestyle changes. Some may be easier than others.
As the saying goes, “use it or lose it.” Like a muscle, the brain needs to be worked to maintain optimal function. It needs to be challenged. Learn something new that requires repetition like a college course, art or skill. Repetition increases cell numbers and connectivity.
Part of repetitive learning is saying a new name or word out loud and writing it down or studying text and answering questions about it. This becomes more important as the complexity of what you are learning increases.
Cognition increases overall with activities like crossword puzzles, Sudoku or even video games (you’re never too old). The important thing is to use all your senses when learning to more completely engage the brain.
Just think of the best movies you have seen or books you have read. The parts you remember best evoked the most emotions and touched all the senses. Think of how much better you learn a recipe after you have smelled and tasted what you have made.
Another important factor is to stay socially engaged. Loneliness decreases brain function and can be a major contributor to dementia. Join a club. Help a charity. Volunteer. Travel. Delay retirement until you can fill in the time productively. Keep mentally fit with social diversity.
Of course, sleep is important to keep cognition at its peak, and never underestimate the power of laughter. It produces dopamine, which promotes brain health.
Everything we demand from the brain takes energy. Don’t waste it, and get rid of distracting brain clutter. Use a calendar or planner to remember appointments, birthdays or important events. Use lists and file folders to keep routine information at your fingertips.
Computers and smart phones can be useful when doing this, but nothing is as powerful for memory and learning as writing things down by hand.
Another useful tip is to have a designated place in your home for items like your keys, wallet or purse. Don’t waste brain energy trying to remember where you put them. Use it on learning.
A key to keeping the brain fresh and alive is exercise, which increases blood circulation to the brain. It brings in more nutrients and takes out more toxins. Doing only 2 1/2 hours of exercise each week reduces the risk of dementia and depression by a third.
Shoot for three times a week for workouts. Aerobic activity and strength training are ideal, or you can engage in activities outside the gym like walking, carrying heavier shopping bags or puttering in the garden. Do them consistently. It all counts.
Health concerns such as diabetes, high-blood pressure, obesity, sleep apnea, depression and hypothyroidism greatly speed up the aging and inflammation of the brain. Cigarette smoking is deadly to the brain. Even a single cigarette inflames the brain with nicotone acid and decreased oxygen flow.
Insulin is used to balance blood sugar. Insulin and sugar age the brain dramatically by increasing inflammation. A healthy diet over a long period of time is instrumental in keeping the brain young.
Reach for leafy, green vegetables, fish, nuts and seeds. A lot of fatty acids are needed to preserve brain function. A gram a day of fish oil is a great start, while vitamin C and B complexes are needed for optimal neuronal function. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant and likely helps with memory loss.
Herbs like ginkgo biloba, bacopa and sage have been shown to increase mental focus and acuity, Curcumin and other spices also have been shown to reduce inflammation. Coconut and olive oil are wonderful sources of fats for the brain. Niacinamide increases brain blood flow and reduces fogginess and forgetfulness. Consult your health-care provider to be sure these herbs and supplements are not contraindicated for you.
Another goal should be to cut out carbohydrates. This may be the hardest of all. Things like bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and soda are just sugars that are inflammatory to the brain. Diabetes type 3 has been applied to describe insulin resistance of the brain, which may be a large factor in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
It has been shown that decreasing sugar-carbohydrate consumption slows the normal aging process of the brain.
Your lifestyle choices are your whetstone. Choose wisely to keep your mind sharp for your entire lifetime.
I encourage conversation.
Dr. Kenneth Solomon, Chiropractor in private practice in Poughkeepsie. Serving the Hudson Valley since 1981. Contact Dr. Solomon at firstname.lastname@example.org,www.solomonchiroandnutrition.com or @drsol on Twitter.