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Recently Joe Biden, who will turn 78 on November 20, has become the oldest president in American history, a title previously held by Ronald Reagan. Resistance to ageing is often a manifestation of will. Alexandra David-Neel, the famous explorer and first foreigner to reach Tibet, asked for an extension of her passport when she was over 100, Theodore Monod the naturalist prepared new expeditions as he had turned 90, Jimmy Carter is still active advocating fair elections in his foundation at the age of 95. What can we do to follow their path? How can we protect our brain against aging? This is what we are going to see over in this month’s Newsletter.
In his recent book Keep sharp – build a better brain at any age, Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent writes “clean living can slash your risk of developing a serious mind-destroying disorder, including Alzheimer’s disease, even if you carry genetic risk factors”. His book has received a broad media coverage probably because one of its main thrust is prevention. In other words, we can build a better brain at any age. Exercise, healthful eating, a bedtime routine, sound sleep, relaxation, intentional socializing, yoga, here are some of the suggestions advocated by Gupta, himself a neurosurgeon. Numerous other books dispensed similar advices.
Scientists used to think that brain connections developed at a rapid pace in the first few years of life until we reached a peak in our early 20s. This has proven untrue. Instead, scientists now see the brain as continuously changing and developing across the entire life span. Some cognitive functions become weaker with age, while others actually improve. For instance, connections between distant brain areas strengthen with age, and the brain becomes better at detecting relationships between diverse sources of information, capturing the big picture.
However, it is no secret that as we get older, the memory starts fading and clear thinking becomes more challenging. As the brain ages, stem cells lose their ability to produce new neurons (a process called neurogenesis), causing some cognitive functions to decline. Recent major studies even show that brain’s capacity for memory, reasoning and comprehension begin to decline already in middle age (around 45) rather than in the 60s as thought before. This finding is important because it should also encourage young people to boost their brain power with healthier living.
It is not all bad news though. Science is making quick progress on how to slow or stop this decline. An important key may lie in exercising not only the brain, but also the body. Ground-breaking research recently identified that exercise is able to increase production of new brain cells and improve learning and memory.
Apart from natural decline, age is also the biggest risk factor for many brain diseases, most of which affect brain structure and function, such as dementia and Alzheimer. Actually, Alzheimer itself accounts for more than half of dementia cases. One out of three seniors dies of Alzheimer or some other type of dementia in the US. Alzheimer results from abnormal deposits of proteins form hard plaques and tangles throughout the brain which then interfere with normal brain functions. Researchers believe that the damage begins up to a decade before symptoms appear. The disease is not fully understood but it is believed that it has genetic, environment and lifestyle factors. Among the last ones sleep disorders and heart health are some of the identified causes.
There is an emerging consensus that in terms of prevention for natural decline and brain disease what is good for our hearts is also good for our heads. Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, quitting smoking, controlling diabetes, and controlling blood pressure and cholesterol are all good for the heart. Consequently, they will also keep the brain healthy and resilient.
The seeds of bad physical and mental health are planted long before symptoms appear. So for this coming year 2021 let us all stay active and healthy. Today we are building tomorrow’s health.
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