Why you need to take your brain's health a lot more seriously
First off, I’m not going to talk about ‘brain foods’ and how chewing on a certain type of plant that grows once every 16 years in a remote rainforest will give your brain superpowers. This article is about real brain care. (Of course this doesn’t mean eating right isn’t key for a sharp and healthy mind, and you can bet I’ll be talking about that.)
But first let’s start with some background: Your brain controls all major bodily functions. It is what enables us to walk, talk, breathe, think, experience every type of emotion possible – essentially do just about anything and everything we humans do.
Now, just because the brain is hidden away under that thick skull of ours doesn’t mean it is okay for us to ignore it. While facials and hair salon visits and trips to the gym are common ways we take care of our body, how many of us are actively taking care of our brain?
This becomes especially important as we age, where natural changes to brain structure occur which affect our cognitive abilities. In fact, that’s a great place to start, so let’s dive in.
What happens to the brain as we age
To put it bluntly, our brain shrinks. As we age, there is a decrease in size and weight, particularly in the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus (areas traditionally associated with learning, memory, and planning). This decrease is quite significant, with a study revealing that the volume, or weight, of the brain declines with age at around five percent every 10 years after we pass the age of 40.
What else is going on? Well, the efficiency of communication between neurons in our brain is compromised as the brain ages and there is a chance of a build-up of plaque developing around neurons, something which occurs in a much stronger form among Alzheimer’s patients. We also find that the flow of blood starts to reduce due to arteries narrowing.
When the brain is aging normally, there is no question that there are changes at the neuroanatomical and neurophysiological levels (i.e., changes in the anatomy and the functioning of the nervous system) that are affecting our everyday brain function.
There is also little question that as we age, some of our key cognitive functions are affected, most notably memory (particularly short-term); the ability to process language; the ability to make decisions, as well as our powers of perception – for example finding it more difficult to hear higher frequencies.
So can we make a link? And if we can, how do we then explain why some older people perform certain tasks better than their younger counterparts – indeed why have there been so many great scholars and writers going strong past the age of 80?
Well, accurately mapping our cognitive process onto the actual neural structures is an ongoing research field. And it seems the brain can adapt, with certain areas associated with particular brain functions changing with age – an older person using a different brain structure compared to a younger person when performing the same cognitive task.
“The volume, or weight, of the brain declines with age at around five percent every 10 years after we pass the age of 40.”
What you need to do
The first rule is to stay active in both mind and body.
A 2003 study showed that older people who danced several times per week had a 75% lower risk of dementia in comparison with those who did not dance at all. Similar findings are common for seniors who can speak more than one language, who read a lot, play chess, and listen to classical music. Close social contact with family and community are also important factors.
As for the body, well, it’s no surprise to hear from me that a lot of exercise along with a healthy diet is a must: Go for a run or a swim, get to the gym, and keep your sugar and grain intake as low as possible (along with all those processed and chemical-laden foods). Also avoid alcohol where you can. And of course stay far far away from smoking.
No one functions well on little sleep. So you need to make sure you’re getting enough. The bad news is that, as mentioned, the prefrontal cortex part of the brain deteriorates with age and this is where ‘slow waves’ are generated – and it’s these waves, occurring during deep sleep, that may aid memory. As we get older, this type of sleep (and our memory) becomes more elusive.
Finally, you will want to keep an eye on your hormone levels as you age, and consider bioidentical hormone replacement therapy if your levels become too imbalanced. Why? Well, for starters, estrogen is the most important hormone in women when it comes to memory, while in men it is testosterone. Certain hormones increase blood flow and oxygen to the brain, affecting both behaviour and memory. Keeping balanced levels are therefore essential.
Where will you go from here? First step is to take a good look at any changes you may have noticed in recent years – especially if you are in the late-thirties-and-up category. That’s when a lot of people start noticing for the first time that they are not quite as sharp as they once were and the memory not quite what it used to be.
If that is the case for you, there is no need to panic. Just start off by ensuring you live by the basic rules of health, some of which I’ve outlined in this article. It is easy as we get older to in fact get lazier when it comes to taking care of our health. We are well into our habits. But small positive changes can add up to big results, and it’s worth making whatever sacrifices are necessary in order to keep that healthy mind well into our later years.
Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.