10 Things You Should Know About Your Aging Brain

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January 29th, 2010

In the recent economic downturn, many people have decided to go back to school to help themselves find a better job. Others have made the decision in the interest of keeping busy during a layoff or after retirement. No matter your reasons for considering an education, going back to school is an excellent way to keep an aging brain sharp. Researchers have discovered astounding facts about the aging brain, putting an end to any misconceptions about the inability for older individuals to learn, adapt, and grow. Read on to discover ten things you may not have known about your aging brain.

  1. Brain plasticity. The aging brain can continue to grow and learn through a process called "plasticity" that is a natural creation of neural pathways in the brain. After age 50, most people’s cognitive function begins to decline. By encouraging brain plasticity, you can help combat that decline. Keeping your brain active and challenging yourself to continually learn new things will promote the natural plasticity in your brain. Some programs are designed specifically for promoting brain plasticity, such as this one from Posit Science.
  2. Brain change. All brains experience change with aging. Some of these changes can begin around age 30, with more significant changes setting in later in life. A combination of both natural and age-related changes contribute to brain changes. The brain will naturally eliminate the least necessary synapses, keeping those that are more important. Also, as your brain ages, such factors as injury, stress, and oxidation can lead to changes within the brain. Despite a belief that brain cells die off as the brain ages, this is, in fact, one way the brain does not change. The brain keeps all its brain cells and can even continue to create new ones throughout life.
  3. Factors in brain health. There are three areas of influence that contribute to brain health in which scientists have spent time researching. These three factors are emotional, demographic and social, and biomedical and physiological. Scientists have learned that both depression and how well an individual believes he can function are important factors that contribute to either brain health or brain decline. Socioeconomic status and how well-incorporated an individual is in her community contribute to brain health. Physiological contributors such as cardiovascular health and how much exercise an individual gets can also affect how healthy the aging brain is.
  4. Plaques and tangles. Amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles are the focus of much Alzheimer’s research right now. The plaques are found outside neurons, or nerve cells within the brain, and tangles are found inside the neurons. It was once believed that the presence of these plaques and tangles were the cause of Alzheimer’s. Scientists now know that all people create these plaques and tangles in their brains, starting in the mid-twenties. It is now believed that Alzheimer’s is caused by inflammation and the resulting calcification in the brain that results from aging.
  5. Dementia. Dementia is not necessarily a normal part of aging. In fact, dementia is rare before age 65, with only 1-3% of those aged 65 experiencing dementia. However, by the time those people reach 85, half of them will have dementia. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s, with 60-80% of dementia cases being attributed to Alzheimer’s. Vascular dementia, or dementia caused by a stroke or a series of small strokes, is the next most common type. Diseases, medications, and toxins can also cause dementia.
  6. Middle-age brain. Scientists are now learning that the middle-age brain, while once thought to be on the decline, is actually capable of processing the world differently and, in some ways, better than the brain of a younger person. The brain in middle age sees a more comprehensive view, thus being better able to recognize patterns, which leads to the ability to understand significance of events and recognize solutions to problems much more quickly than a younger brain. The ancient idea of wisdom coming with age now has scientific proof.
  7. Forgetfulness can be learned. Unintentionally, you may be training your brain to be forgetful. Synapses that are used more frequently are maintained, while those used less frequently are discarded. If you are building synapses that tell your brain to panic when you have forgotten something, that grow accustomed to misplacing items (such as keys) on a regular basis, or that reinforce your belief that you are losing your memory, then you may well be teaching yourself to do all of these things. Instead, try reinforcing more positive habits, such as always placing keys in the same location, make mental connections to things easily forgotten such as people’s names, and focus on the positives of your working memory.
  8. Abnormal brain aging. Genetics may certainly have something to do with abnormal brain aging, as does gender (men experience more abnormal brain aging than women), but other more controllable factors also affect the aging brain. Anything that restricts blood flow can negatively impact brain health. Many common ways blood flow is restricted is from high blood pressure, smoking, being overweight, having high cholesterol, and living with high stress. Diabetes can also affect how the brain ages, as can the level of educational or career attainment you have, depression, and head injury.
  9. Exercise. Exercise can help keep a brain working smoothly. Walking three times a week for a minimum of 30 minutes each time is enough to maintain and possibly even reverse cognitive decline in older individuals. Researchers have learned that exercise affects the brain in a number of ways. Exercise has shown to improve concentration and attention in aging adults. It also helps create new nerve cells in the brain, strengthen synapses, prevent the loss of gray matter, and increases blood flow.
  10. Salmon. There are definitely certain foods that contribute to a healthy, aging brain. One of the most touted brain foods is wild-caught salmon. Salmon is high in essential fatty acids, low in fat, and has some of the lowest mercury content compared to other seafood. Wild-caught salmon has been shown to reduce depression and and improve cardiovascular health. There is also evidence that salmon can help reduce the risk of stroke and dementia.

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