“It is necessary to relax your muscles when you can. Relaxing your brain is fatal.” – Stirling Moss
One of our most treasured attributes is our brain. We want to be able to think clearly, remember accurately and make thoughtful decisions. Certainly there are diseases like dementia and strokes that impact our cognitive abilities, but how do we fight the decline of our acuity because of aging? Or is there really a decline just because we are aging? I want to start of this post by defining what mental process scientists look at when they study cognition. The most common attributes studied are thinking, understanding, decision making, learning, remembering, paying attention and problem solving. These are the attributes for successfully functioning on a day to day basis. When AARP did a study in 2012, “staying mentally sharp” was the top concern of the vast majority (87%) of the survey’s participants.
How does our brain age and how is it assessed?
The aging of our brain is inherent. An aging brain happens in both humans and animals and begins at birth. It is a very dynamic process and shows high variability between individuals and within an individual. There are some aspects of brain power that do not change, some that decline and some that actually improve with aging. There is always the potential to strengthen some of our cognitive abilities. Differences in brain function changes between people are due in part to differences in experiences, health status, lifestyles, education, attitudinal and emotional factors, socioeconomic status and genetics.
One of the most consistent and measurable hallmarks of an aging brain is a slowing of information processing. Speed of processing is measured by asking people to determine whether a set of two pictures placed side by side are the same and to evaluate as many sets of pictures as they can in 90 seconds. Another hallmark, sustained attention is measured by asking people to perform a repetitive task and respond to the appropriate targets. Other brain functions that can be easily assessed are episodic memory, working memory, semantic memory, executive function, language, special ability and intelligence.
While many cognitive hallmarks of aging decline with increasing age we must realize that neural plasticity is retained. As we age we can still learn new skills and our performance can improve. We can increase our speed of processing and we successfully employ compensatory strategies to offset cognitive declines. Our wealth of knowledge, skills and experience support our continual improvement.
What can we do to promote or improve brain health?
- The most important behavior that influences health as we get older is physical activity. Physical activity is linked not only to overall health but brain health. While it is very important for your health to be active throughout your life, you can improve your cognitive abilities by increasing cardiovascular exercise. Studies have shown that combining aerobic and strength programs show greater benefits that aerobic exercise alone. Benefits from physical exercise increase with longer training sessions (longer than 30 minutes). Executive function and memory are especially improved with increased aerobic fitness.
- Next in lifestyle choices is learning. Once again while higher levels of education may provide a buffer against loss of brain function, literacy helps protect against mental decline. Memory, language and executive functioning appear to be protected by literacy. Intellectual engagement and lifelong learning are associated with positive brain function.
- Social engagement is essential. Several studies have shown that social isolation and loneliness are associated with declines in global cognition, psychomotor processing speed and delayed visual memory as well as increasing chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, sleep disruption, blood pressure, inflammation and heart disease. Social engagement includes activities like going to parties, volunteering, going to dances, playing cards, visiting others, attending church and speaking with friends and family on the phone. There is a caveat to improved brain function and increased social activity. The activities should not cause social strain or stress.
- Nutrition and diets play a large part in protecting brain function. Both the Mediterranean diet pattern and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet pattern have been shown to preserve brain function and prevent cognitive decline. These diets emphasize high consumption of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains, moderate consumption of fish and alcohol (especially red wine) and a low consumption of saturated fats and dairy products. Preservation of brain function is also associated with higher levels of Omega 3 fatty acids, implying that a fish oil supplement would be beneficial.
- Supplements may help in protecting brain function, but the literature is inconclusive. Antioxidants including Vitamins C and E, flavonoids, and betacarotene are antioxidants that may have beneficial effects. Vitamin E has been shown to brotect brain structures and function in animal studies. However, Vitamin E is a fat soluble vitamin and higher doses of Vitamin E (greater than 400 international units a day) may increase the risk of mortality. Vitamin D3 may also be associated with protecting brain function.
- Excessive alcohol consumption can cause long-term brain damage.
- Air pollution is associated with decreased brain function but the relationship is complex and it is unclear whether the effects are direct or indirect.
Most of the information above came from Cognitive aging: Progress in understanding and opportunities for action. Institute of Medicine. 2015. Since this exhaustive review of where our medical understanding lies in the relationship between age and brain function there has been a new study published in Lancet on lifestyle and mental decline.
In this study 1,260 Finnish men and women between ages 60 and 77 who were at high risk for developing dementia were divided into two groups. Half participated in an intensive intervention program that included exercise, nutritional counseling and brain training exercises in addition to monitoring blood pressure and weight. The other half received regular health advice. After 2 years the researchers found standard brain function scores were 25 percent higher in the intervention group. Executive functioning was 83 percent higher and processing speed was 150 percent higher. These are pretty profound results and certainly support that each of us should eat our fruits and vegetables and lower our saturated fat intake, incorporate strength and aerobic training in our lives, continue to stimulate our brain with learning, maintain or increase our social activity and monitor our heart health.
Here’s to a long and productive life with a healthy brain.