“Have you seen my keys?” “Why did I come in here?” “Her name is on the tip of my tongue, but…” If you often find yourself uttering such phrases, you’re not alone. In fact, as early as our 30s and 40s, our mental sharpness begins to slip, the result of a constellation of neurological changes – many of which are beyond our control.
“Our brains grow until we are about 20 and then they literally begin to shrink,” explains Dr. Kristen Graesser, a neurologist with Colorado Neurology Specialists in Aurora. “It’s a completely normal part of the aging process.”
As neurons die and the connections between them whither, even the healthiest among us can expect our brain to shrink as much as 0.5 percent per year as we age, studies show. Throw on poor cardiovascular health, which can limit blood flow to the brain, or the presence of amyloid plaque, a gummy protein which can strangle neurons, and age-related brain drain can be exacerbated. By age 50, two-thirds experience the occasional “senior moment.” After 65, one in five suffer from “mild cognitive impairment” (persistent memory problems severe enough to be noticeable by others.) And if we live long enough, half of us will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
The forecast may sound grim to the 10,000 baby boomers who turn 65 every day, but the news is not all bad. While some factors (like genetics and the passage of time) are well beyond our control, some aren’t. “With a good diet and healthy lifestyle, you can actually prevent or slow the progression of some cognitive impairment early on,” says Kathleen Standafer, a nutrition support dietician at Rose Medical Center.
Load up on healthy fats: What’s good for the heart is good for the brain, and mounting evidence suggests that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acid found in fatty fish and algae, is good for both. Several studies have shown that people with lower levels of DHA (naturally present in human heart and brain tissue) have higher risk of both coronary disease and cognitive problems. Meanwhile, some studies of aging animals have shown that those who take in more DHA have less plaque buildup in the brain. The kicker: Timing matters. One 2010 trial of 485 healthy adults with mild memory complaints found that those who took 900 mg per day of algae-based DHA supplements for six months made significantly fewer errors on memory tests than they had at the study’s onset. But another, conducted by the National Institute on Aging, found that DHA supplementation had little impact on patients once severe dementia had already set in. So start eating your fish now. Standafer recommends 3 to 4 servings a week or, if you can’t stomach salmon or tuna, take 500 to 900 mg daily of DHA with EPA in supplement form.
Get moving: “If you just get your blood flowing better, it’s helpful to your brain,” says Dr. Donald Murphy, a geriatrician with Senior Care of Colorado. While research has been mixed, a September, 2011 review of 1,600 papers, published in the Journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, concluded that “you can make a very compelling argument for exercise as a disease-modifying strategy to prevent dementia and cognitive impairment.” Studies showed that people with mild cognitive impairment who engaged in six to 12 months of regular aerobic exercise (20 to 45 minutes of heart-rate-boosting activity several times per week) scored better on mental tests, and lost less gray matter over time than sedentary control groups. Animal trials suggest that, in addition to slowing brain shrinkage, exercise may also promote the growth of new connections between brain cells and spark production of the cognition-boosting hormone Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). Again, starting early matters: In 10 of 11 studies, adults who routinely exercised in mid-life carried a “significantly lower risk” of dementia in their Golden years. Even a brisk 45-minute walk three times a week can make a difference.
Try a new hobby: Just as lifting weights bulks up muscle fibers, learning a new language or tackling an expert Sudoku puzzle can lay down new links between neurons, strengthening the brain, says Murphy. Some researchers theorize that even when other things go wrong in the brain (such as plaque buildup or vascular problems) a strong “cognitive reserve” of solid neuronal connections can help compensate, keeping dementia symptoms at bay. One 12-year study published in the journal Neurology in 2010 found that of 1,157 healthy adults over 65, participants with higher cognitive activity levels (playing games, reading, going to the museum, etc.) declined much slower over time. The key is novelty, says Murphy. Instead of playing another round of golf or doing the Sunday crossword puzzle you’ve been doing for years, try something new. “We in our 50s need to get out of our comfort zones and develop new hobbies that we can maintain in our later years,” says Murphy, who recently took up piano.
Eat your fruits and veggies: Dark-colored fruits, such as blackberries, blueberries, and plums have long been heralded for their wealth of antioxidants – which scavenge cell-damaging free radicals protecting the organs, including the brain. Meanwhile, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli contain a compound called sulforaphane, believed to boost the body’s own defenses against oxidative stress. Regardless of the mechanism, says Standafer, fruits and veggies have proven a valuable tool for preserving mental acuity: One famous 2005 study followed 13,388 women over decades, and found that those who ate the most cruciferous vegetables and leafy greens stayed mentally sharp far longer than those who ate the least.
Get your Zs, but not too many: Sleep is critical for regenerating neurons, and lack of sleep hastens brain aging, researchers say. One recent study of 5,400 people ages 45 to 69 found that women who slept seven hours per night and men who slept six to eight hours per night scored highest on tests of memory, vocabulary and spatial awareness. When tested five years later, those who had cut back on sleep, dipping below those optimal levels, saw their cognitive scores dip as much as if they had aged an extra four to seven years. Interestingly, those who had begun to sleep too much also exhibited more cognitive decline. So shoot for six to eight.
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