Together with heart disease, memory and other cognitive losses associated with aging can concern people approaching their golden years. While aging brings the benefits of wisdom and experience, it is also sometimes associated with reduced mental acuity, brain-processing, and short-term recall of faces, names, numbers, and words – symptoms we refer to as “senior moments.” In more extreme cases, cognitive decline may manifest itself as dementia, possibly as Alzheimer’s disease.
Brain Function Can Be Preserved
Many people believe that cognitive decline is a natural consequence of aging. As we learn more about inflammation and other brain-damaging phenomena, we better understand how best to prevent brain “aging.” The choice between passively accepting “inevitable” cognitive decline and striving to preserve brain function as long as possible should be a no-brainer.
Our amazing brains contain numerous regions that perform very specialized functions. Injuring even a very small area of the brain can severely compromise functionality of other parts of the body. The most advanced computer technology cannot match the efficiency and complexity of the irreplaceable human brain. Preventing brain damage, whether resulting from inflammation or a bike accident, is therefore of vital importance.
Individual brain cells, or nerve cells, are called neurons. Neuron bodies receive and process information from various stimuli, then transfer it to other neurons or muscles and catalyze body responses such as movement, thought, vision, taste, or smell, and glandular reactions like perspiration. Neurons are the great communicators. They deliver messages through electrical and chemical synapses, biochemical interactions occurring at the dendrites, or root-like structures extending from nerve cell bodies. One nerve cell may be connected to thousands of cells through the dendrites.
Information received through the dendrites is sent out through axons, or conductive, tube-like structures extending from nerve cells to other cells. Like electrical wires running through a person’s home, axons need insulation. The myelin sheath performs this function. Layered around axons, myelin is a lipid-dense substance that is essential for most nerve cells to conduct mental electricity. Through the axon, the neuron communicates with the next cell down the line by releasing a chemical messenger into the synapse that, in turn, activates that cell. These chemical messengers are called neurotransmitters.
Basic Brain Necessities
In order to function properly the brain needs glucose and oxygen. Glucose provides the brain fuel and oxygen makes glucose metabolism possible. Glucose or oxygen deprivation can cause permanent brain damage, even after only a short period of time.
The brain receives these vital substances through the cerebral blood vessels – the carotid and vertebral arteries. Additionally, the brain receives through the blood amino acids, electrolytes, fatty acids, hormones, minerals, and vitamins. The brain uses these essential materials to manufacture neurotransmitters, stabilize electrical connections, maintain metabolic functions and myelin, and strengthen cell walls.
Since we synthesize less of these brain nutrients as we age, we can obtain them through supplementation. Additionally, we can help ensure the brain receives the sustenance it needs by maintaining cardiovascular integrity, especially an energetic heart and flexible blood vessels that are clear of unstable plaques.
Age-Related Brain Conditions
Memory lapses and other signs of reduced brain power are not inevitable, nor are they necessarily early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. When cognition (the ability to think, perceive, remember, and reason) declines enough to handicap daily activities, a person may suffer from dementia. Dementia is not a disease in-and-of itself; rather, it describes symptoms which accompany a disease such as Alzheimer’s.
While dementia may be due to age-related factors, it may also result temporarily, among other reasons, from depression, side-effects of some medications, chronic alcoholism, and medical conditions such as low thyroid function, kidney or liver disorders, Vitamin B12 deficiency, and elevated homocysteine levels.
Alzheimer’s disease, an irreversible, progressive brain disorder which extinguishes memory and thinking skills, currently affects between 2.4 and 4.5 million Americans. Characterized by amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in the brain, as well as loss of connections between, and subsequent death of, nerve cells, Alzheimer’s causes brain shrinkage.
People usually begin displaying forgetfulness, a hallmark symptom of Alzheimer’s, after the age of 60. Whatever the ultimate cause of Alzheimer’s disease may be, the symptoms of the disease arise when neurons that are damaged or destroyed by free radicals (generated by inflammation) fail to function. Such symptoms manifest between 10-20 years after the initial brain damage. Limiting brain damage, then, should be key to preventing Alzheimer’s disease.
Theories of Memory and Other Cognitive Losses
There are many theories to explain age-related memory and other cognitive losses, the most popular of which is oxidative free radical damage to cells and cell membranes. Oxidation of fatty acids in nerve cell walls and damage to mitochondria (parts of the cell responsible for producing energy) can result in a cycle of inflammation and immune system response. As waste materials accumulate, the weakened nerve cells can lose dendrites, become sick, and die. Such injury could manifest as Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, depending on the area of the brain affected.
Other theories involve programmed cell death, or the formation of neurotoxins from ingested materials in food, water, and the atmosphere. As well, unnoticed deficiencies of one or more brain nutrients can result in memory loss and eventual cell death. The accumulation of tiny infarcts, or strokes, within the brain (caused by oxygen deprivation) can also lead to cognitive impairment. An additional school of thought is that a stressful lifestyle paves the way for memory loss or Alzheimer’s disease.
Chronic stress can cause continued, excessive amounts of cortisol (a hormone produced by the adrenal glands which increases with age) to surge within the body, and toxify brain cells. Excess cortisol production has also been linked to hypothalamic damage and overall hormonal malfunction which can significantly age the body.
Since with Alzheimer’s there is very little one can do to slow or reverse its effects, prevention is key. Some preventative measures to preserve cognition include avoiding and reducing inflammation and other free-radical activity in the brain, as well as enhancing neural function through diet, appropriate supplementation, and stress reduction. Additionally, it is important to keep the mental wheels moving (remember the phrase, “a brain is a terrible thing to waste?”).
Although the brain is especially susceptible to the damaging effects of free radical stress, it is also one of the body’s most plastic structures – that is, it can respond to targeted nutritional supplements, as well as mental stimulation, for a lifetime. Brain health ultimately necessitates a combined effort to sustain healthy mental, emotional, and physiological states.
Supplementing with fish oil, especially in tandem with magnesium, B-vitamins and zinc can help reduce inflammation as can ingesting polyphenols, which are found in grape seeds and pine bark (Pycnogenol), as well as in most vegetables and fruits. Alpha lipoic acid and Vitamin E are particularly helpful to combat free-radical stress in the brain, and coenzyme Q10 can help assist with cognitive function better by supporting mitochondrial function.
“When it comes to your brain, it is a clear case of use it or lose it.”
Cultivating / maintaining curiosity and engaging in mentally stimulating activities (turn the television off!) can help one preserve brain function. Likewise, reducing emotional stress (and the consequent production of stress hormones) and maintaining a balanced and happy spirit are also critical for mental health.
For additional information about aging check out my book, Spa Medicine: Your Gateway to the Ageless Zone.
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