November 18, 2020 8 min read 2 Comments
We’re all so taken by the imperfections of our skin, the wrinkles that slowly dig our forehead and the corners of our mouth. We waste precious time worrying about jeans sizes and grey hair, and we forget something crucial: the outside isn’t the only thing that grows old. The inside does too.
And it’s what’s on the inside that deserves care and attention.
There are wrinkles you want and need to preserve: your gyri and sulci. These are the folds and indentations on our brain that gives it a wrinkly appearance.
As we grow old, the brain naturally starts shrinking as cells die. Think of the brain, in simple terms, as a combination of grey matter (the neuronal cell bodies) and white matter (the fibers connecting the cells).
Shrinkage starts around the ages of 30–40 and accelerates after our 60s. Volume loss isn’t uniform: some areas shrink faster than others. Parallel to structural changes, cognitive decline can start as early as 45. It is characterized by lower performance on memory, reasoning, phonemic and semantic fluency. The decline becomes faster and more pronounced with age.
This is a natural process. But with the advances in science and technology, it becomes clearer what makes a super-ager, how we can preserve our brain’s youth a little longer, and how we can halt this downward slope.
It starts before you get old. It starts ASAP. Exercise is tip number 1 because it enables all 8 other tips. You might not like the gym, the sweat, the fatigue, the sore muscles but your brain loves it.
“The best advice I can give to keep your brain healthy and young is aerobic exercise,” says Donald Stuss, director of the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto.
Mark McDaniel, professor of psychology at Washington University adds, “I would suggest a combined program of aerobics and weight training. Studies show the best outcomes for those engaged in both types of exercise.”
It goes without saying, exercise has multiple benefits when it comes to brain health: Through its neurochemicals and the processes of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, exercise decreases stress and social anxiety, prevents neurological disorders, improves emotional processing, mood, energy, memory, and focus.
But most importantly, exercise hinders the brain’s aging process.
In neuroimaging studies, the amount of physical activity a person performs can predict greater grey matter volume in certain brain areas when compared to sedentary peers. This relationship is in turn associated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment.
The evidence in both human and animal studies is overwhelming. If you want to prevent atrophy and white matter lesions commonly associated with aging, then get moving now.
Alzheimer’s disease, for example, is characterized by progressive cerebral atrophy in brain areas that seem to be preserved by physical exercise. In 10% to 25% of the population worldwide, physical activity seems to prevent the onset of Alzheimer's disease.
By ‘Relax’ we mean 2 things:
Multitasking gives us the impression of improved productivity, but this is a misconception. Switching your attention between tasks decreases efficiency by slowing down reaction speeds.
In fact, there is no such thing as multitasking: performing multiple tasks at once is a process that requires your brain to disengage and re-engage constantly.
More neuroimaging evidence even goes as far as stating that multitasking does irreversible damage to your brain. MRI scans show that high ‘multitaskers’ have less density in a structure called the anterior cingulate cortex, a region associated with empathy and emotional control.
2. Take sleep very seriously: not too little but not too much either.
Sleep difficulties accelerate the loss of brain volume in widespread brain regions, especially when we reach the age of 60. Poor sleep can cause protein buildup in the brain that attacks healthy brain cells, leading to cell death and cerebral volume loss.
While the effects of sleep deprivation are already known and well documented, the effects of excessive sleep are less popular. The evidence, however, suggests that sleeping too much (more than 8 hours)can reduce basic cognitive abilities and everyday reasoning skills. The largest sleep study in the world (44,000 people) showed that people who slept more than the required amount were equally impaired than those who were sleep-deprived.
Weird advice. And if it is ever disproved, at least you’ll be left with clean and healthy oral hygiene.
Already, previous research has linked severe gum diseases to cardiovascular complications (heart diseases, stroke, etc…). This is due in part to the fact that gums are a very thin barrier between the bacteria and the blood. When the gums erode or become infected, bacteria can easily enter the bloodstream.
The intact blood-brain barrier (BBB), a highly selective border of cells that protects the central nervous system, prevents pathological organisms from entering the brain.
As we age, and as we favor the overgrowth of oral microorganisms, the BBB is weakened. As it happens, microorganisms can spread through the bloodstream and contribute to the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s diseases.
Of course, late-onset Alzheimer’s disease has many different causes and factors, from genetic to environmental. But in this cascade of events contributing to the pathology, it seems that oral microorganisms might be involved.
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) accelerates brain aging, and the research to support this claim is overwhelming. Here are just a few points to consider.
Using an MRI-based predictive model of normal brain aging through machine learning, the findings suggest that TBI patients’ brains seem older than the person’s chronological age, with a difference that increases as the time since injury increases. This difference is ~4.5 to 6 years.
This means if the person is 34 years old, their brain might have the volumetric structure of a 40-year-old (ie. is 6 years older). The more severe the injury, the higher this difference between real age and brain-predicted age.
If you’re not a big fan of graphs and prefer images, this one below speaks a thousand words. You can see the shrinking of the brain of a 14-year-old with injury. The structure is similar to an 86-year old who’s suspected to have Alzheimer’s disease.
We still don’t know what cascade of biochemical processes is unleashed in the brain following TBI. When we will discover it, the long-term consequences of brain injuries will be halted and prevented.
To boost your memory, be unpredictable.
Episodic memory is the memory of everyday occurrences, associated with autobiographical events, and that can be recalled and stated. This is the memory we activate when we tell stories of what happened to us.
To test how to best enhance this type of memory, researchers recruited 46 adults (60 to 86 years old) and tested them at three different stages: before memory training, immediately after training, and 1.5 months after training. Participants were separated into two groups — predictable training or unpredictable training.
While the two groups had equivalent story recall before training, the group who went through training with unpredictable elements was able to narrate a story more accurately. 1.5 months later, the benefit seemed to fade.
This experiment supports the theory of working memory adaptability: switching between items in working memory involves cognitive control which can be influenced by cognitive training.
I mention learning as part of cognitive training and brain health in every other story I post.
Your brain is dynamic and ever-changing while you’re learning. As we grow, we lose brain cells and brain volume naturally. The logic then dictates that we should compensate for this loss by some gain.
Think of your brain as a connection of billions of neurons. Think of each neuron as a small (but super complex) computer. Neurons communicate and influence each other through their connections.
All these neurons are in constant communication with each other. For example, for 10,000 neurons we can have 100 million connections, each one with a different weight or influence power.
Scientists once thought that the adult brain couldn’t generate new synaptic connections, but we now know this is not true. In some parts of the brain, new connections (synaptogenesis) can be born.
Through learning and the successful repetition of a new process, we reinforce the downstream firing of the neurons, leading in the long-term to strengthened connectivity. This is how babies learn to move, talk, and understand. This is how athletes develop skills or how we learn new languages.
We already know healthy diets are crucial for cognitive health. Vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids, play important roles in brain cell function and inflammation.
But when we talk about brain aging we also talk about brain volume loss. It seems healthy diets also play a role in sustained brain volume, specifically in the hippocampus, a brain region important for memory functions.
It’s not about one group of food or drinks; it’s about eating habits: higher intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, dairy, fish, and a lower intake of sugar-containing beverages is associated with larger brain volumes.
Older adults who consumed small amounts of flavonoid-rich foods, such as berries, apples and tea, were 2 to 4 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias over 20 years compared with people whose intake was higher, according to a new study led by scientists at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (USDA HNRCA) at Tufts University.
There’s also evidence that adherence to the Mediterranean diet (rich in fish, nuts, vegetables, and fruit) protects against brain tissue loss. Eating the Mediterranean diet increases blood levels of a protein called the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BdNF), which supports the growth and survival of brain cells.
Social interaction is a brain-training game. Literally. Socializing combines elements of learning, unpredictability, memory formation, and motivation/reward, all of which are essential components of brain training preventing neurodegenerative diseases.
In the field of neuroscience, there’s a concept known as “the social brain”. It combines all the neural activity and cognitive processes related to social interaction.
A study found that “SuperAgers,” people older than 80 years old with the mental agility of much younger people, have one thing in common: close friends.
A different study also found that seniors with high levels of an Alzheimer’s-linked protein in their brains slowed mental decline by going out and socializing regularly.
I don’t like stating the obvious, but here we go: stress is detrimental for our brain.
When experiencing stress, the body produces the hormone cortisol in excess. Higher than normal levels of cortisol can wear down the proper functioning of the brain by disrupting synaptic regulation, killing brain cells, and even reducing the size of the brain at the prefrontal cortex (an area involved in complex cognitive behavior, personality, decision making, social behaviour)¹³.
The key is therefore to keep our cortisol levels down. Just thinking about laughing, or anticipating laughter can:
a) reduce cortisol levels significantly
b) Boost the production of mood-elevating hormones (β-endorphins).
It seems easy and straightforward; move. Start moving right now. Relax enough but not too much. Sleep well but don’t forget to floss before and after. Keep your head safe, and sustain it with a healthy diet. Learn new things, and don’t shy away from the unpredictable. Be social and seek humor; laugh, laugh a lot. You should be good to go!
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