Our Aging Brains
Transitions can be difficult. Even though we celebrate birthdays every year, we don’t necessarily acknowledge the signs of aging. We are totally surprised one day when the aches and pains make it harder to get out of bed; or, we see the gray hair and wrinkles in the mirror. But we can’t see the aging impact on our brain. Cognitive decline actually starts around age 25 and subtly goes downhill. We don’t notice those changes until middle age. The wear and tear of a full life can play some havoc on our brain. Most of the time we are with our friends and family and we are all about the same age. We are all experiencing the same thing so we laugh and joke about these memory lapses and tip of the tongue incidents. But, spend time around people thirty years younger than you in a competitive environment – say the workplace – and your aging brain doesn’t seem so funny anymore. It is obvious that younger brains can process information and think at a much faster pace than you can anymore.
I went back to school when I was fifty. School was always a safe place for me – I loved learning and it wasn’t extremely difficult. However, when I was in graduate school and my classmates were half my age, I questioned my sanity. New material was presented, discussion was expected, technology needed to be mastered and I felt like a deer in headlights. Had I known then what I know now my transition back to school would not have been so traumatic for me.
Our brains age, just like our bodies’ age. It happens to everyone whether you are a nuclear physicist or you have never worked. Our brains shrink, as we get older; neurons (brain cells) are dying in the regions of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. These areas are responsible for memory, learning, planning and other complex mental tasks. Changes in our neurons (brain cells) and neurotransmitters (brain chemistry) affect communication between the cells in the brain. Therefore, we don’t take in information and have a response as fast as when we were younger. This process is called processing speed.
Our lifestyle determines what the impact of these changes will be on our brain. Genetics has about a thirty percent role in how our brain will age, but environment and lifestyle have a far greater impact on the brain. Do you lead a sedentary life; eat fatty foods; and watch TV all the time – OOPS – cognitive decline for you and a high risk for dementia. If you are active, eat nutritious meals and challenge yourself mentally then you can give brain-aging changes a run for their money. Our brains are very adaptable constantly changing to our environment. Our brain is an energy cannibal – this three-pound organ uses 25% of blood, oxygen, and glucose from each heartbeat. If you provide this environment for your brain you can offset the aging changes that are taking place. Your brain has the ability to grow new brain cells in the hippocampus, center of learning and memory. You can increase the flow of neurotransmitters and help facilitate communication within your brain. You can help your brain function at its highest level.
There is so much written about Alzheimer’s disease and it has imbedded fear into our future. Neuroplasticity (the ability of our brains to change) is a newer concept and the benefits of changing our brains as a means to delay Alzheimer’s disease are now being researched. Our miraculous brains have the power to change our future if we learn how to take care of them through healthy lifestyles. These blogs take you on a journey of brain health, what you can do, discussion of the latest research to support these lifestyle changes and the outcomes that you might have when you commit yourself to a brain healthy lifestyle. We have the power to change our brain – even our aging brain!