Caring for the aging brain

Your brain health is perhaps the strongest predictor of how long you will live. It is health that determines whether life is rich and fulfilling from youth to old age.

A car that is driven well with quality gas, oil changed regularly and serviced with new parts will likely last longer than a car that is not taken care of. Similarly, the easiest way to have a healthy brain in middle age and beyond is to have good physical and mental habits.

But what if a person is slow to make repairs, like a car owner who needs an oil change for years? The car owner can always change his engine parts. On the other hand, you only have one brain, which is basically made up of the neurons you were born with, plus some added later in limited areas. When they start to perish, can they be saved or even made stronger?

Tai chi exercise for brain and body health
Elderly people practice tai chi at a park in Anshan, China’s Guizhou province. Tai Chi’s slow and thoughtful movements help people of all ages achieve better balance while keeping the brain engaged.

The story of two mice

Marian Diamond, a brain researcher, is sure that it is never too late to improve brain function, and here we will explore why she thinks so.

In the 1960s, Diamond compared two groups of mice. The first group was confined to what amounted to a gray cell in a high-security prison. They ate simple diets just to survive, but their brains received little stimulation. There were no games, puzzles, and gatherings. He put the second group in a sort of rat school with lots of breaks. They had toys and taps to play with, challenging mazes to explore, exercise tools to increase circulation to muscles and nerves, and best of all, other mice to share their experiences with. When he put them through a time trial in which rats ran through identical mazes, the rats that lived in the physically and mentally invigorating environment fared much better.

Diamond then did something he couldn’t do with humans in a similar experiment. He put winners and losers under the knife to examine their brains. (Life isn’t fair; especially for a rodent.) The mice that were in an educational environment and won the races had very different brains than those in the control group. Their prefrontal cortices—the outer, cortical layers that house neural pathways for making sense of the world—were thicker than unstimulated mice.

Mice with stronger brains had more neural connections; One of the signs of more mental activity. They also had more blood vessels to carry oxygen to keep those connections active at peak efficiency. Diamond had obtained strong evidence that the state of his mind represented the physical state of the brain. Learning strengthens the brain; Just as exercise strengthens the muscles of the legs, arms and abdomen.

As enlightening as Diamond’s research was, it also had an unexpected twist: He hadn’t tested on young mice. He chose middle-aged and older mice; equivalent to the age of 60 to 90 years in humans. The old mice had brains that could reshape in response to new experiences (a condition called plasticity).

This is good news; But only for mice. Brain structure is remarkably similar among all mammals. What works for rats, dogs, horses, and monkeys also works for humans. Diamond was reassured by his findings that the brain can change at any age. Older brains take longer to respond to healthy living, but they certainly do. “We say if you use your brain, you can change it as much as a young brain,” he says.

Brain researcher Marian Diamond
University of California, Berkeley brain researcher Dr. Marianne Diamond strongly believes that it’s never too late to boost your brain.

time failure

Time works against the brain in three ways. When the brain reacts negatively to aging, it does so through disease, disuse, and the physical changes associated with aging. The disease becomes more common with age and many of them attack the brain. Diseases range from stroke, which kills brain cells by cutting off blood flow, to brain tumors and brain degeneration.

Disuse causes neural connections to be ignored and destroyed, and eventually this neglect spreads to active connections. Who doesn’t forget many high school trigonometry topics in middle age or old age if they haven’t used them since the age of 18, or doesn’t get weak in it after giving up chess for years?

Eventually, aging itself prunes some of the brain’s neural branches, removing a few neurons and exposing the rest to the cumulative effects of a lifetime of exposure to toxic substances and other natural chemicals.

However, practically everyone knows someone who has lived 80 or 90 years or more and is still mentally healthy. A healthy elderly brain processes information more slowly than a young one, but once it learns something, it stores it as a treasure to use again and again.

Brain section with cerebral atrophy
This radiograph of the brain shows cerebral atrophy, which is responsible for neurodegenerative diseases; including Alzheimer’s, Lewy body dementia, cognitive and attention disorders.

Change at any age

All parts of the brain, not just those involved in higher forms of thinking, can be improved by challenges; At any age. Anyone who wants to improve their balance can do tai chi from 30 to 90 years old. Wii bowling improves hand-eye coordination and the ability to focus attention in a senior citizen as much as a teenager.

In fact, exercise with seniors has been proven to reduce their risk of falls, increase mobility, and possibly fight dementia. But only one in eight Americans between the ages of 65 and 74 and one in 16 over the age of 75 report doing vigorous activity for at least 20 minutes three days a week (the recommended minimum).

The brain’s plasticity reveals a lot about its fascinating structure. It is the most complex object we have ever discovered in the universe; Made up of billions of independent units that work together in a highly complex symphony to make sense of the world; Process, store and retrieve information and use that information to make decisions about how to interact with the world. Every new experience changes the physical makeup of the brain, so that when you finish reading this article, your brain will be slightly different than the one you started with.

Repetition of familiar experiences is good up to a point: practicing a favorite old song on guitar changes the brain in such a way that future performances improve. But the best stimulus for the brain, young and old, is novelty.

Even rats in a nest full of colorful toys find them boring after a while, because playing with them activates the same previously established neural pathways and requires less and less brain effort. New experiences (new ways to learn) keep the brain more dynamic at any age; Because they stimulate new connections in the neural circuit of the brain. The more connections the brain has, the better it can resist changes caused by aging and disease.

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