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Aging Brains That Step Up to the Plate and Stay Sharp!

Posted May 22 2009 11:55pm

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
The Harvard World Health News linked recently to an article that asked why some aging brains stay sharp. In our world of rapidly aging baby boomers, where the boomers are beginning to outnumber people of other generations, the question posed by this article is of prime importance because the boomer generation, more than any other generation prior to it, is very interested in all aspects of their collective health.

Furthermore, as populations age, particularly in First World countries, and especially in Europe, it behooves everyone to ensure that the aging population remain as cognitively stable as possible.

Articles of this nature are popping up more and more frequently and hence there is more and more information available, as well as more and more interest, and as the information seeps through the layers of society, it is often even the younger generations who urge their parents or elders to apply some of this information to their own lives in order to remain mentally sharp.

The article indicates that when aging hampers memory, some people's brains compensate to stay sharp. Now scientists want to know how those brains make do — in hopes of developing treatments to help everyone else keep up.

"We need to understand how to defer normal cognitive aging ... the way we've invested in fighting heart disease and cancer."

There are intriguing clues, gleaned from discoveries that some seniors' brains literally work around aging's damage, forging new pathways when old ones disintegrate.

What's the advice for now?

Physical exercise is the best-proven prescription so far, the scientists agreed. Memory improved when 72-year-olds started a walking program three days a week, and sophisticated scans showed their brains' activity patterns started resembling those of younger people,
Then there's the "use-it-or-lose-it" theory, that people with higher education, more challenging occupations and enriched social lives build more cognitive reserve than couch potatoes.
It's never too late to start building up that reserve, said Columbia University neuroscientist Yaakov Stern. But, "the question is how. What is the recipe?"

Everything from doing crossword puzzles to various computer-based brain-training programs has been touted, but nothing is yet proven to work. Johns Hopkins University has a major government-funded study under way called the "Experience Corps," where older adults volunteer to tutor school students 15 hours a week, to see if such long-term stimulation maintains the elders' brains.

What about medication? Companies have been reluctant to test side effect-prone drugs in an otherwise healthy aging brain, but scientists cited animal studies suggesting low-dose estrogen and drugs that might mimic or ramp up brain signaling are promising possibilities. Read more

For past articles on conscious aging on this blog, click here.

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