A likely cause of mental decline in most people is diminished blow flow in small vessels that are easily plugged by cholesterol and fats or ruptured by high blood pressure. These undetected “mini-strokes” are probably quite common as we age, yet they cause cumulative, progressive damage. Another source of damage is the lifetime cumulative effect of oxidative free radicals that result from energy metabolism. The brain consumes about 20% of all the body’s oxygen, even though it only ways about 3.5 pounds.
When brain cells do die or are damaged for any reason, healthy neurons are assaulted by inflammatory chemicals, like cytokines, that are released by the brain’s immune cell system. Brain inflammation is commonly caused by infections such as colds and flu and by diets deficient in anti-oxidants.
We now know brain function need not decline with age, at least for people who stay healthy and mentally active. By the way, research shows that a lifetime of vigorous learning helps prevent or delay Alzheimer’s disease.
Level of education and lifetime of intellectual stimulus of research seem to protect brain against aging. Here are some examples:
Of course genes and luck have a lot to do with how well one ages. Even so, gene expression is influenced by things like exercise, diet, and mental activity. Two genes have already been identified that become expressed as new memories are formed.
Too many seniors resign themselves to the ravages of age. They will find, however, large benefits from challenging themselves in new experiences and competencies. Better yet, learning new things makes you feel good about yourself, especially when accomplishing things other people think you can’t do.
1. Discover Magazine (2012). Special issue “2062 World Almanac.” October.
2. Rupp, R. (1998) Committed to Memory. New York: Random House.
3. Diamond, Marian (1993). An optimistic view of aging brain. The Free Library. http://www.thefreelibrary.com/An+optimistic+view+of+the+aging+brain.-a013700953
“Dr. Bill,” Senior Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M, is author of a new memory improvement book, Memory Power 101 (SkyhorsePublishing.com) and an e-book in multiple formats for students, Better Grades, Less Effort (Smashwords.com).