"A little mental decline is inevitable with aging, but there are lots of things you can do about it."
Have you ever stood in a room desperately trying to remember why you entered it? Forgotten an important word you needed in a discussion? Forgotten the name of the person you were speaking to? Memory lapses and forgetfulness happen to all of us, but it's important to understand whether it's a normal, inevitable part of aging, or if there’s something else going on. In today's Inside Health with Dr. Keller Wortham, MD, we're going to talk about mental decline, whether we have to just accept it, or whether there's something we can do about it — and what that might be.
- 02:39:Age Associated Memory Impairment
- 06:15:12 Steps to Better Cognitive Function
It is certainly true that our brain function gets slower and there is a certain amount of mental decline as we age. This is a pattern that has been seen in both humans and animals for thousands of years. There are, however, some things you can do to improve mental function and slow that process down.
Sometimes there are more rapidly degenerative neurological processes that are more debilitating than just standard aging — diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, which can affect your memory as well. These issues are not well understood, and need to be properly diagnosed and treated by a physician.
But for most of us, there is a more common process that causes the slowing down of our mental processes. It’s so common, they even have a name for it:Age Associated Memory Impairment.
Age Associated Memory Impairment
This is essentially a natural degradation of your memory that happens with age. It usually begins in your 20s, and tends to speed up as you reach your 50s. The bad news is that you cannot completely stop this from happening. There are certain physiological things that come with aging — our brains shrink a little as we age, blood supply to the brain decreases, our connections between the brain cells weaken, our neurotransmitter levels (the chemicals that keep our brains active) decrease — and as these things happen it gets harder to make new memories, integrate new information, and recall old memories. So a lot of things do become more difficult as we get older.
But don’t despair! There is good news. Youcan slow, and in some cases even reverse, this gradual decline, especially if you work at it. The secret is something called…
That’s a fancy word for saying that our brains have a property that allows them to be molded and reconfigured, especially in response to new activity, new information, or new challenges. Neuroplasticity is a way of saying that if you stimulate your brain, you can make it do amazing things. The reverse way of saying this is, if you don’t use it, you lose it. That’s one aspect of our brains; they respond really well to stimulation. A second aspect, is called…
Neurogenesis is the creation of new nerve cells within the brain. This is kind of a hot topic lately. there’s some debate about it, because the prevailing theory for a long time has been that we don’t grow new brain cells after we are infants, but then some studies have come out claiming that we grow new brain cells regularly. Now there are some thoughts that this may only happen in animals but not humans, or if it does occur in humans, maybe not in quantities that make much of a difference. The jury is still out, but the fact remains that Neurogenesis — the creation of new brain cells — is a distinct possibility, especially in the region of the brain called thehippocampus.Conveniently, the hippocampus is the part of the brain that deals with memory.
These two processes — neuroplasticity and neurogenesis — make it possible for us to exercise and stimulate the brain to protect the memory, improve function, and nurture any new brain cells that develop.
12 Steps to Better Cognitive Function
Scientists at Harvard have actually come up with a 12-step program to help improve the brain, protect it, and keep it young and healthy. Follow these 12 steps and there’s a good chance you’ll improve your memory, and slow down that steady decline of mental functions.
Step 1: Mental Stimulation
This is the primary thing you should be doing. Mental stimulation can come in many forms, but it’s basically about challenges and newness. This could be learning a new language, learning to play an instrument, or playing brain games such as crosswords and sudoku. There are phone apps that you can download with games and intellectual quizzes. If you dedicate time every day to these activities, you can stimulate your brain.
Step 2: Daily Exercise
Exercise is great for many reasons, but it’s really great for your brain. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, and blood carries nutrients and oxygen, and helps clean out waste. Exercise also lowers cholesterol and blood sugar, which can be damaging to your arteries and nerves in your brain.
Step 3: Antioxidants and Omega-3s
A lot of our body oxidizes — or rusts — as we get older. The more you can protect your body against that oxidative process, the better off you’ll be. The way to do that is with antioxidants and omega-3s. Omega-3s come in many forms — you can get it from things like wild-caught salmon, which is rich in omega-3s, or if you’re a vegetarian or don’t like fish, you can get it from things like chia seeds and avocados. These kinds of things can help reduce inflammation in your body and protect your nerves and arteries from the oxidative process.
Step 4: Lower Blood Pressure
The brain doesn’t like high blood pressure. Do the work to lower that protect your brain and prevent strokes. A lot of times, tiny little mini-strokes can occur in your brain without your even knowing it, but over time, the cumulative effect of those strokes reduces your mental capacity. There are multiple ways to lower blood pressure, which include some of the things mentioned in the first few steps: eating omega-3s and exercising.
Step 5: Manage Cholesterol
Cholesterol is the waxy substance in your blood that can build up in arteries and lead to inflammation. A certain amount of cholesterol is necessary for life, but if you lower your cholesterol and keep it at optimal levels, you’ll reduce the inflammation and prevent the build-up of plaque on the inside of your arteries. A great way to do that is with the omega-3s we talked about, or getting a lot of fiber in your diet. Fiber-rich (and also antioxidant-rich) foods include cauliflower, kale, and bell peppers. You can also eat whole grains like Farro, to start reducing cholesterol levels.
Step 6: Reduce and Control Blood Sugar
Diabetes is a massive problem in the U.S., and diabetes is very bad for the nervous system. If you suffer from diabetes, or if your blood sugar is off balance, do your best to get it under control right away. Exercise will help with that, as well as getting the right types of food in your diet, including fiber and omega-3s. So all these steps are building on themselves. The more you control your blood sugar, the less sugar attacks your brain cells, and the more you can preserve that mental function.
Step 7: Low Dose Aspirin
This step is a little more controversial. Aspirin has been shown to make platelets less sticky, which can help protect the brain and other parts of the body against clots, and against the inflammation that can reduce blood supply to vital body parts. However there is a downside to Aspirin. There are some risks involved with even low-dose Aspirin, so make sure to talk to your healthcare provider about whether Aspirin is good for you. If you’re suffering from other conditions like diabetes or high cholesterol, being on low-dose Aspirin might be a good way to protect your brain and heart as well against inflammation and some of the effects of those disorders.
Step 8: Stop Smoking
Smoking isterrible for your brain. It’s terrible for most of your body, of course, but when you smoke, you constrict all of your blood vessels, and that constriction lowers blood supply to all of your organs, including your brain. It also releases a lot of inflammatory chemicals into your bloodstream, and these inflammatory chemicals over time wreak havoc on your entire body, and can cause a lot of the degradation that leads to mental decline. If you need help quitting, talk to your physician. You can successfully implement strategies that help you quit!
Step 9: Use Alcohol Responsibly
Alcohol is a tricky one, because a little alcohol has been shown to have some benefits from a cardiovascular standpoint, and maybe from a cerebrovascular standpoint, but overall, it’s considered a toxin, and in larger amounts it’s terrible for your nervous system. People who suffer from alcoholism lose a lot of brain mass to its toxic effects. So if you drink alcohol, you really want to limit it to one drink per day for women, and no more than two per day for men. By all means, avoid binge drinking, which is terrible for your nervous system, and depletes a lot of important vitamins like B1 and B12 that your nervous system needs, so drink cautiously.
Step 10: Check Your Emotions
This one may seem more difficult to measure, but your emotions are very important to your general health. Prolonged periods of stress and anxiety can increase cortisol, the stress hormone, and we know that over time, high levels of cortisol can start to have negative effects on the organs in your body, including your brain. A lot of the things we’ve already talked about (such as exercise) can help with stress-management. Other methods include building community with other people, seeing a therapist if you need someone to talk to, maybe changing your work schedule or finding people to help with your daily tasks if possible. When it comes to brain health, managing your stress is very important.
Step 11: Protect Your Head
This seems obvious, but it’s still important to say. The more head trauma that you’re subjected to over time — concussions, for example — can really damage your brain tissue. We’re seeing this a lot with football players at both the high school and professional level. It’s incredibly important to limit the amount of heavy impact that you get on your head and, by extension, your brain.
Step 12: Build Social Networks
Building social networks is great for your health. We are created as social people. That interactivity with other people, the conversations you have, and regulation of stress hormones you get from being in a social environment, are all great for your brain. As we mentioned, this has been shown to reduce stress, which is necessary for your brain. Between the reduction in stress hormones, and the increase of other neurotransmitters like serotonin, and the stimulation of these interactions, you’ll be doing your brain a favor.
There’s good news and bad news when it comes to brain health. A little mental decline is inevitable with aging, but there are lots of things you can do about it, and this 12-step program we discussed is full of great ways you can stimulate your brain, and keep your mind sharper for longer.
Stay tuned for our next topic, as Dr. Keller will discuss the silent killer that affects nearly 40% of adults. You won’t want to miss that show!