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Can You Rejuvenate an Older Brain? From The Neuroscience Lab to Real Life

New activities stimulating the mind or body might help lessen dementia

By Francine Toder

We all understand that no magic elixir can stop or even slow the human brain or skeletal muscles from aging. But is that true?

After two decades of research with mice, Tony Wyss-Coray, PhD, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, has some ideas about what might work. Follow-up trials with humans have indeed demonstrated the possibilities.

A man wearing a grey sweater practicing the cello. Next Avenue, decrease cognitive decline
Our best current deterrent to dementia is one we have control over — using our brains and bodies to engage in novel cognitive activities and physical exercise.  |  Credit: Jon Tyson

What the Research Says

According to Wyss-Coray, quoted in Stanford University's School of Medicine newsletter, Scope, "when we treated old mice with repeated intravenous infusions of young plasma (the liquid fraction of blood), these mice became smarter, performing more like young mice on multiple cognitive tests. Conversely, young mice exposed to aged blood or treated with aged plasma experienced accelerated aging of the brain and a loss of cognitive function." 

Some techniques that rejuvenate blood may hold promise for improving the performance of the aging human brain in the future.

That means that, at least in the lab, for now, some techniques that rejuvenate blood may hold promise for improving the performance of the aging human brain in the future.

In another recent study, "among all U.S. adults, an estimated 41.0% of dementia cases were attributable to 12 risk factors … " including hypertension, obesity, and physical inactivity. So any new activities stimulating the mind or body help ward off decline and maybe even dementia. This is encouraging.

Bruce Goldman, a writer for Stanford University's School of Medicine newsletter, reported that the losses in cognitive functioning that begin in midlife, between age 50 and 60, may not be inevitable. 

And while the typical difficulties with word retrieval that many older adults have seem just annoying to begin with, over time, they can lead to difficulties in smooth daily communication. This can lead some to worry about further cognitive deterioration. But self-help strategies are available.

What We Can Do On Our Own

Physical exercise and managing everyday stress are the best ways to ward off cognitive decline. Most of us already possess the necessary tools. 

Walking is a good example, and I don't mean speed walking or hiking up mountains and through forests — but simply a half-hour walking a dog or a solo stroll.

Older adults can also use meditation or mindfulness while doing ordinary routines like washing dishes to lower blood pressure and manage body weight. Beyond that, some actions strengthen neuronal connections in the brain by simply taking up a new hobby. 

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If your choice of activities has elements of newness and complexity and includes problem-solving, it's the best elixir presently available to those of us outside of the neuroscience lab. It turns out that older adults have more problem-solving ability than any other age cohort. Any problem-solving activity, like crossword puzzles, will do.

The Strengths of an Aging Brain

Over a lifetime, the brain's frontal cortex automates many processes by forming patterns. It uses a shorthand system to determine if something is familiar or not. 

If familiar, it searches within its archives for a way to handle or resolve it behaviorally. This patterning is done with little or no awareness on our part. But in so doing, elders are decidedly at an advantage over younger folks. Our repertoire of events is so much more extensive based on a longer timeline.

Crystallized intelligence, one of the two types identified in the mid-20th century by American psychologist Raymond Cattell, comprises our storehouse of knowledge and lifetime of experience. And crystallized intelligence leads to what we call wisdom. 

Wisdom is the product of a long and exciting life, cumulative decision-making, and stored patterns to facilitate new learning. Fluid intelligence, the other kind named by Cattell, is characteristic of young people.

What My Research Showed

While researching the older brain's strengths for my book, "The Vintage Years," I was focused on strategies to maintain sharpness and even improve brain functioning in older adults — including myself. 

For example, regarding problem-solving, I found that based on a vast number of experiences, the aging brain doesn't need to approach each situation as if it were novel. Instead, older adults have an unfair advantage as they can look back over decades of experience.

Move your body and stretch your mind in whatever ways bring you pleasure.

Our best current deterrent to dementia is one we have control over — using our brains and bodies to engage in novel cognitive activities and physical exercise. 

While researching for "The Vintage Years," I also found that older men and women who took up an art form like writing, playing a musical instrument, or a visual art practice like painting or sculpting found ways to exercise their aging brains — and bodies. This even applied to those in their late 80s and 90s.

I interviewed Caroline at the age of ninety. She began writing memoirs at eighty, and her daily writing practice occurred after a long walk in the county park adjacent to her senior living complex. 

Henry was 96 when I interviewed him. He used a walker but still made time daily for arm strengthening using five-pound weights and leg lifts using his body weight. Upper body strength was beneficial for his work as a wood sculptor, even at his advanced age.

The Bottom Line

Humans have not yet been the beneficiary of current experiments inside neuroscience labs. Still, some proteins in blood and blood plasma seem to be able to stop and even reverse cognitive and muscle aging — in mice. 

So while it seems the stuff of science fiction, some of these research findings may make a difference in humans in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, take up a new hobby, like learning to paint or playing the cello — which I did.

Learn that foreign language you never had time to do before. Find a physical activity that you enjoy. Or do sudoku puzzles. Maybe your preferred method is cleaning your apartment, gardening, or taking a chair yoga class. Move your body and stretch your mind in whatever ways bring you pleasure.

Francine Toder, Ph.D. is an emeritus faculty member of California State University, Sacramento and is a clinical psychologist retired from private practice. She is also the author of The Vintage Years: Finding your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty. Her most recent book is Inward Traveler: 51 Ways to Explore the World Mindfully.  Her extensive writing on diverse topics appears in magazines, professional journals, newspapers, blog sites and as edited book chapters. She resides in the San Francisco Bay area. Read More
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