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What You Need to Know About Your Aging Brain

Many of us face challenges, but research has shown that not all the news is bad

By Tammy Kennon

Most of us entertain preconceived notions about the perils of aging and brain deterioration — and the uncomfortable feeling that we are powerless to stop it. With the drumbeat of bad news about dementia, it feels like we’re all on a slippery slope of cognitive decline and memory loss. Evidence to support this negative perception is easy to find. But if you look for it, research into the aging brain has produced some silver linings as well.

A Decline in Some Dementias

Buried somewhere under disconcerting statistics about the prevalence of dementia, there is robust evidence that some types of dementia (although not Alzheimer’s) have actually been declining since the 1970s.

An extensive longitudinal study of people 60 and older published last year in The New England Journal of Medicine looked at more than 5,000 people over the course of three decades. They found that the incidence of dementia (though not Alzheimer’s) dropped by an impressive average of 20 percent per decade. And more good news: for those who were diagnosed with dementia, its onset was delayed by five years.

Even though pop culture would have us believe that younger is always better, science is telling us that it’s not always true. For instance, our vocabulary peaks later in life than scientists once thought. A 2015 study published in Psychological Science collected data from more than 48,000 participants and the results suggest that vocabulary, a measure called crystallized intelligence, doesn’t peak until our late 60s or early 70s.

In addition to that expanding vocabulary, we might be getting more content as we age as well. A study, also published by Psychological Science, found that older adults appear to experience a higher level of well-being, in part because, as we age, our ability to regulate our emotions improves.

Encouraging Aging Brain Research in Mice

In addition to these general trends, science has also found ways we can take a proactive role in maintaining mental acuity. And for those destined to develop dementia, it’s possible to delay its onset.

One 2016 study found that mom may be right about taking our vitamins. The study conducted by McMaster University in Ontario looked at cellular processes in mice that “we felt significantly contributed to aging and age-related cognitive deterioration,” said Jennifer Lemon, research associate in the department of biology and lead author of the study.

Those processes include oxidative stress, inflammation, mitochondrial and membrane dysfunction and impaired energy metabolism. To find out if they could impede the damage, Lemon’s group tested the impact of dietary supplements on a strain of mice chosen because they age quickly, losing more than 50 percent of their brain cells by one year of age. The results were decisive.

Promise in Protecting Vision and Sense of Smell

“The supplements completely protected the mice,” said Lemon. “They had the same number of brain cells as young animals and not only didn’t experience the age-related learning impairments, but got smarter as they got older.”

The formula, a blend of 30 over-the-counter nutraceuticals such as vitamins B, C and D, folic acid and ginseng, also showed promise in protecting vision and sense of smell in the mice. The researchers are now looking at the impact of supplements on specific neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis.

An important caveat: since the studies were conducted in mice, it’s too soon to say whether the same treatment would be effective in humans.

“This will give us the data that will allow us to progress to clinical trials in these diseases to see if the MDS [supplement] is able to slow or halt disease progression in humans,” said Lemon.

‘Eat Your Veggies’

Mom was right about something else too: we really should eat our veggies.

One recent study of older adults found evidence to suggest that consumption of leafy greens preserved crystallized intelligence, which is the ability to use knowledge and experience acquired over a lifetime. Participants who performed better on tests of crystallized intelligence had higher blood serum levels of lutein, a naturally occurring carotenoid found in spinach, kale, broccoli and eggs.


And it’s not about veggies alone. There is evidence to suggest that we can prevent brain loss by adhering to a Mediterranean-style diet, called a "heart-healthy eating plan" by the Mayo Clinic, avoiding meat and dairy while emphasizing fish, whole grains, nuts and fresh fruits and vegetables.

A six-year study published in January found that healthy older adults who followed a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables had less brain shrinkage than those who regularly consumed meat and dairy.

Don’t Stress Over Busyness

Another way we can ward off cognitive decline goes against conventional wisdom: staying super-busy. We tend to characterize busyness as stressful, but a study last year at University of Texas at Dallas found a positive correlation between busyness and cognition.

In a sample of more than 300 participants, those who reported higher busyness performed better on cognitive tests that measured brain functions, such as processing speed, working memory, episodic memory and reasoning.

“The sample included in the study were 50 to 89 years old,” said Sara Festini, a postdoctoral associate and lead researcher on the study. “We found that greater levels of daily busyness associated with better mental function.”

While busier participants scored better on cognitive tasks, the study did not address the chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. A correlation was established — not causality. The next step in the research will be to determine if being busy causes improved cognitive function or if it’s the higher cognitive function that is responsible for people engaging in more activities.

The takeaway from these studies is that maybe we don’t have to be passive about our aging brains. It’s heartening to know that we can take a proactive role in fighting cognitive decline, even if we simply chill out about being busy — and start following mom’s advice.

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Tammy Kennon is a career journalist whose work appears in The New York TimesUSA Today and, among others. After traveling aboard her sailboat for three years, she moved to Seattle where she writes about mental health, travel and the upside of life after 50. Read More
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