What Causes Brain Decline As We Age?
Cognitive decline, or the gradual loss of brain function that accompanies aging, is something that we accept as part and parcel of getting old. We age, our tissues begin to deteriorate and, before long, we see the effects. Just as the skin and muscle lose their elasticity and strength, the cells in our brains begin to suffer from a similar process. People can’t think as quickly as they could when they were younger, forget more of what they hear, get worse at making judgments, and become more easily confused.
Fundamentally, the driving force behind cognitive decline in old age is the same process that causes deterioration in other body systems during aging. The cellular machinery that reads instructions from DNA to create proteins loses its ability to understand the genome accurately, leading to the production of misshapen proteins that eventually clog up cells and cause them to become senescent.
But despite the aging process, cognitive decline is not inevitable. Many of the causes of cognitive decline are things that you can control, though there are some that you can’t.
Before looking at some ways to prevent or reverse declining brain health, let’s run through the common causes, besides general aging.
Serious, long-term psychiatric illnesses can lead to cognitive decline in some people as they get old. Psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety and depression, can cause problems with thinking, concentration, and memory.
Damage To Brain Neurons Due To Injury
One of the reasons it’s a good idea to avoid sports like rugby and football is that they can lead to head injuries which in turn damage the brain, reducing a person’s “cognitive reserve.” The idea behind cognitive reserve is that people have a certain amount of brain tissue that they can lose before they go on to develop things like dementia or memory loss. Professors – people with lots of brain cells – often have a higher cognitive reserve than the average person because of the amount that they have trained their brains throughout their lives.
Damage to neurons can also follow stroke. Neurons die and the brain scars when a stroke impedes the blood supply. The death of neurons, in turn, leads to a loss of function, either specific or general.
Alcohol and some other drugs of abuse can lead to cognitive impairment by reducing the overall size of the brain and disrupting brain signaling. The extent of the damage depends on the length of time a person abuses the drug, how often they abuse occurs, their age and the genetic factors which can make them more susceptible to the harmful effects.
People can experience problems with brain function if they have poor vitamin B12 or folate status. Brain restore by Nutri-Dyn contains a specific blend of nutrients to prevent deficiencies from leading to cognitive decline. Likewise, Magtein contains a form of magnesium believed to support memory and learning.
Some people may not convert EPA-DHA from ALA efficiently in their livers. Our brains use both long-chain fatty acids EPA and DHA to construct new brain tissue. People who do not get enough of these in their diets or fail to supplement may go on to develop cognitive decline.
Neurodegenerative conditions are sometimes lifestyle-related, but not always. Neurodegenerative disease starts slowly, killing only a few brain cells, but then often gets worse over time (if people do not take measures to prevent it) eventually leading to dementia. Common neurodegenerative diseases include Alzheimer’s, Lewy-Body disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
Toxins In The Environment
Thanks to industrial production and the development of civilization, the Earth is not as pristine as it once was. There are heavy metals in seafood, dangerous particulates in the air, contamination in drinking water (even in the West), and pesticides throughout the food supply. Specific man-made chemicals, or a combination of them, is likely responsible for the uptick in neurological conditions, like autism, in Western countries over the past fifty years.
Mercury in tuna, for instance, may cause cognitive impairments in children. There’s also a risk that the chemical will bio-accumulate throughout life, reaching toxic levels in the brains of older adults.
How To Prevent And Reverse Declining Brain Health
How to prevent and reverse declining brain health is one of the most critical issues for lifestyle medicine today. When a person loses their ability to think, it is a tragedy, and so it’s vital that people understand the things that they can do to prevent brain decline and even reverse it.
Berries are known for their anti-atherogenic effect in blood vessels, helping to sweep away all the gunk that can accumulate after a lifetime on the western diet. But the same may be true of the brain as well. Just like those around the heart, the blood vessels in the brain can become clogged with plaque, preventing the oxygenation of neurons and leading to the building up extra-cellular junk in the spaces in between. Dementia may be “the heart disease of the brain,” caused by the fact that arteries can no longer serve up the nutrients that brain cells need.
Berries, though, can help. No, they’re not a substitute for a healthy diet, but if you do eat whole food, plant-based then they may help supercharge your results. People who eat berries appear to have younger brains than the population as a whole, based on cognitive performance tests. Researchers believe that the reason berries are so beneficial is that they contain a class of phytonutrients called anthocyanins. These pigments give berries their distinctive dark colors and protect them from the harmful radiation of the sun. But they also protect people’s brains too, perhaps because they help to clear out the plaque and reduce inflammation within brain cells.
Get Plenty Of Social Interaction
If you study any of the longest-lived populations on Earth – the Okinawa Japanese, Californian Seventh-Day Adventists, or the inhabitants of Sardinia – then you find something interesting: older people are invariably part of a large, loving community.
Social interaction plays an integral part in the prevention of cognitive decline. When people interact with others in social settings, they exercise their brains, force neurons to fire and create new connections. Being with other people builds the brain because, as social creatures, we’re almost hard-wired to mirror the actions of others. We need people to be around as we age to keep our brains active.
Of course, isolation is a problem for many older people. It denies them the opportunity to interact with others and could have damaging knock-on effects on their brain health.
Earlier, we discussed the concept of “cognitive reserve,” or the notion that some people have a buffer zone that allows them to lose more brain cells before it affects function. Reading is a great way not only to create new neurons and connections between brain cells but also to increase the size of this buffer.
Engage In Physical Activity
Physical activity is good for health on several fronts, but researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine wanted to find out whether the “feel-good” hormones released by exercise could reduce cognitive decline. The researchers tracked the level of certain endorphins in the blood and correlated them with scores on memory tests, discovering that people who did exercise also performed better on the tests.
Exciting research suggests that aerobic exercise may even reverse cognitive decline in cases of mild cognitive impairment. Researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine took a bunch of people with mild cognitive decline and got them to perform aerobic exercises while a control group did stretching alone. The researchers thought that aerobic exercise might slow down the rate of cognitive decline, but to their surprise, the participants in the study performed better on a range of tests after exercise, even though they were six months older. The authors concluded that exercise could be a “potent non-pharmacological intervention” that could improve executive control and mental performance.
Engage In Mindfulness And Meditation
In 2013, the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard found that meditation and mindfulness could induce changes in the brain which slowed the progression of cognitive disorders, like Alzheimer’s. Meditation, they showed, activated brain networks associated with stress reduction and feeling good.
Researchers know that perceived stress is a risk factor for dementia. People who feel more stressed about their lives overall are more likely to go on to develop neurodegenerative disorders. The researchers wanted to find out whether people who meditated experienced less stress experienced a lower reduction in the size of their hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory, known to shrink with cognitive decline. The researchers found that people who meditated or practiced mindfulness saw a smaller reduction in brain function or none at all.
Get More Sleep
Poor sleep quality or lack of sleep may lead to declines in the volume of grey matter in the frontal lobe, according to researchers at the Department of Cognitive, Linguistics, and Psychological Sciences at Brown University. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain associated with higher reasoning skills and ability to abstract, but when the amount of grey matter falls, so too does a person’s cognitive reserve. The more they lose, the less they can think.
Imaging studies suggest that disturbed sleeping reduces the volume of brain matter in the frontal lobe and the brain in general, increasing the risk that somebody might go on to develop dementia. The researchers point out that it is the quality of sleep that appears to have the most significant effect, not the length.
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Dr. Ron Ledoux is a licensed Chiropractor from the midwest who has been practicing since 2001. He’s also certified in clinical nutrition and has extensive training in nutritional therapies and is enthusiastic about educating and offering natural health care to his patients and the community.