A vigorous scientific effort is underway to find ways to protect the brain from premature aging and slow the process of age-related cognitive decline that robs so many older individuals of their memories and mental acuity. Progress is being made, but despite decades of research, scientists do not entirely understand the declines in brain function associated with normal aging. They have, however, found a number of significant associations between certain health or behavioral factors and declines in brain health and functioning—findings that might provide a basis for strategies to protect brain health.
Potentially Modifiable Factors
“Much of the evidence for modifiable factors that contribute to declines in brain function with age is circumstantial,” cautions Deborah Blacker, MD, ScD, Director and Associate Vice Chair for Psychi-atry Research at the Gerontology Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). “The findings are not definitive. However, there is a sense that taking good care of your overall health, and especially your car-diovascular health, may result in important benefits for the brain.”
Among the potentially modifiable factors researchers are focusing on are:
1. Cardiovascular Problems:
The link between poor cardiovascular health and negative brain effects is among the best-studied of the possible causes of brain changes with aging, and suggests strategies that individuals might adopt in an effort to slow age-associated decline.
“There is a great deal of epidemiological data that indicates a connection between cognitive decline and cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Blacker. “This research suggests that taking steps to im-prove the health of the heart and blood vessels might also benefit the brain by preventing damage to the white matter (the cables that connect nerve cells to one another). Possible strategies: “It makes sense to adopt a lifestyle that is healthier for your heart and brain by addressing and managing cardiovascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, diabetes, obesity, and high levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol.”
2. High Sugar Consumption:
Consuming high levels of sugar increases your risk for diabetes, which is associated with damage to blood vessels in the brain. In addition, sugar combines with proteins and fats in the body to produce substances called advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, that are associated with more rapid aging of cells, increased inflammation and free-radical production, and higher risk for cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Possible strategies: Eat a healthy, low-calorie, low-fat diet that avoids simple carbohydrates with high glycemic indexes (such as syrups, sweets, and refined foods), and incorporates fresh vegetables and fruits, plenty of fiber, lean meats, fish, eggs, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and low-fat dairy products. Seek regular medical examinations with glucose tolerance tests to help in the detection and management of blood sugar and insulin abnormalities.
3. Excessive Stress:
The chronically high levels of cortisol and other hormones associated with long-term psychological stress have have a negative impact on the brain and other body systems. Stress-induced anxiety and depression have been linked to poorer performance on cognitive tests, poorer memory, and accelerated cellular aging. Possible strategies: Try to reduce the situations that cause stress in your day-to-day life, and learn stress-reducing techniques to help you relax and forget your tensions. To unwind, use relaxation techniques such as meditation, visualization, or yoga. Less structured activities, such as enjoying a warm bath, listening to music, or talking to a trusted friend, may also be good ways to forget your stress. Aerobic exercise is an excellent stress-reducer, and also helps with cardiovascular fitness, so this may be a particularly helpful approach.
4. Free Radical Damage:
Free radicals are unstable oxygen molecules that generate chemi-cal reactions damaging to cells. Research suggests that their impact on brain aging and vulnerability to neu-ro-degenerative diseases is especially pronounced. Although free radicals are a normal byproduct of metabolic processes and the generation of energy, and play a role in combating bacteria and viruses, the damage they do to cells accumulates over time. Possible strategies: A diet with plentiful amounts of dark greens and brightly colored fruits and vegetables supplies one of the natural antidotes to free radicals—antioxidants that neutralize the unstable oxygen molecules.
5. Chronic Inflammation:
Inflammation is a natural part of the immune response. Normally an acute response to infection and/or injury, inflammation helps the body eliminate foreign substances and dam-aged tissue and promotes repair and healing. However, inflammation can become chronic, and when this occurs, it may be detrimental. A study published online in September 2013 in the journal CMAJ compared blood levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6)—an inflammatory protein produced by immune cells—in more than 3,000 healthy middle-aged men and women and tracked their physical and mental health for 10 years. The researchers found that individuals who began the study with the highest levels of IL-6 were less likely to age well, and more likely to experience chronic diseases and impaired physical and mental functioning over the ensuing decade than participants with the lowest levels. Possible strategies: Seek treatment for infections and medical conditions that involve inflammation, including dental disease. Whether or not it improves brain function over time, it makes sense to take care of infections as they occur.
“It’s unlikely that individuals can control all of the complex factors involved in brain aging,” says Dr. Blacker. “However, leading a healthy lifestyle may help lower a person’s exposure to many factors associated with brain aging. Try to stay physically and mentally active, maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly, get at least seven hours of sleep at night, and eat a healthy, low-fat diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, lean meats, whole grains, nuts, and legumes.”
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