You mention the word ageing, and most people automatically go to old. There is a lot of ground between ageing and old!
Ageing starts the day we are born. As we age growing up, we initiate a complete change of our body. If you have children, you can watch your child learn and grow right before your eyes.
The process is indeed a miracle to behold. You understand these bodily ageing changes because you can see them happen.
At the same time, the young brain is in a massive growth spurt. Even though you can’t see the brain itself grow, you see the results of the changing brain.
You understand that the brain is ageing and changing because you can see the physical changes that come with the ageing brain.
The young brain is growing neurons and synaptic connections in response to the environment. If there are a novel and complex environment, the young brain responds by adding new cells and connections rapidly. All of this extra growth is known as cognitive reserve.
These rapid changes continue until around the mid-twenties – the early thirties. The automatic growth of new cells (neurogenesis) and new connections (neuroplasticity) slows down significantly after you hit the ripe old age of twenty-five.
The ageing brain is making changes in a whole different way after about the age of twenty-five. Cognitive decline starts to happen! Cognition is planning, decision-making, thinking, and speed of processing (ability to think quickly). But through your thirties, you have so much cognitive reserve stored up that you don’t notice the tell tale signs of ageing. You start burning through the extra cells and connections you grew when you were younger. Because you have these extra cells and connections, you don’t notice any significant changes.
Around forty years old, you start to notice the tip of the tongue problems – you know what you want to say, but you just can't get it out. You forget what you wanted to get from the grocery store and you forget phone numbers, addresses and other bothersome details of life. This is when young adults start freaking out. The biggest fear is that they are on the slippery slope to Alzheimer’s.
So, what is going on when your brain is ageing?
But the truth is, your brain does not know how old you are! Your brain ages by the lifestyle that you lead. The latest statistics from the Alzheimer’s Association state that Alzheimer’s is a lifestyle disease, and lifestyle can actually put you at a 90% risk of developing dementia!! That statistic alone can change the whole perspective on how we view Alzheimer’s. It shifts us from victim to control.
Growing new cells and recovering brain volume is neurogenesis. More connections in the brain (neuroplasticity) also increase brain volume. The discovery of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity is recent and completely upended the belief that our brains were fixed after age 25 and continued to decline until the day we died. Now we know that we have the power to maintain a high functioning brain until the day we die if we live a brain-healthy lifestyle.
Back to the dilemma of ageing to old. When do you have to start taking care of your brain? If your brain is still functioning on a high level in your thirties and forties, is it necessary to take the extra steps to keep it functioning on a high level? Yes, it is! To reiterate, our brain ages by the lifestyle that we live. The younger you start living a brain-healthy lifestyle, the less damage you have to repair. To put it plainly, you are never too young or ever too old to start living a brain-healthy lifestyle.
Here are six factors essential to achieving/maintaining a healthy brain
1. Physical Exercise
We have received the DNA hardwiring from our prehistoric ancestors to stay on the move. We are not built to sit around all day. Our first humans died if they didn’t move, and unfortunately, we can die because we don’t move.
When we move, our heart beats faster, and we are pushing more blood, oxygen, and nutrients to the brain. Our prefrontal cortex (executive centre of the brain) is an energy cannibal. Our brain doesn’t have its own energy source and relies on the blood, oxygen, and nutrients sent to it by our heart.
This influx of blood, oxygen, and nutrients also release a neurohormone – BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), which functions as a fertilizer to help new baby neurons bud from neural stem cells. One of the only ways the BDNF is released is by exercise. You grow new neurons (Neurogenesis) when you exercise!
2. Challenge/ Mental Stimulation
Our brain is very good at pruning cells and synaptic connections that we don’t use. In fact, we lose 5% of brain volume every decade after about age 40! When we live in a novel and complex environment, our brain is challenged, and we create new neural connections (Neuroplasticity). Challenging your brain does not mean specifically using online brain games. Taking a vacation to another country where you don’t speak the language can give your brain a big boost. Learn that language before you take your trip, and your brain will love you forever. Anything you do that requires effort to use your brain to the maximum is paramount to growing new synaptic connections. Between Physical Exercise and Mental Stimulation, you are creating brain volume and actually changing your brain.
3. Nourish/ Nutrition
The brain is very specific about its nutrients. Many foods can hurt your brain, and many that can help your brain. Western culture has not done a great job of promoting healthy eating. Obesity and diabetes type 2 are at epidemic numbers.
Diabetes type 2 is so detrimental to your brain that consideration is given to renaming Alzheimer’s to Diabetes Type 3.
The mind diet is touted as a brain-healthy diet. Dark leafy vegetables, dark-red-skinned fruit, olive oil, food sources that are high in antioxidants, dark chocolate , and red wine. Also omega 3 fatty acids are core foods that need to be considered in this diet. The body is far better at metabolising foods, and the brain is more apt to benefit from food sources to provide proper nutrients.
We are hardwired to connect or to be with other people. The first humans survived by staying in groups. And today, we are dependent on groups to maintain our cognitive health. When we are part of a group, faith-based, family, lifelong friends, etc., we know we have someone watching our backs, and we reciprocate. Research has determined that being part of a group increases our cognition. The isolation of the 2020 pandemic has made a disastrous impact on those who could not communicate freely with other people. The incidence of those diagnosed with dementia died at an increased rate of 16%.
We have really under-estimated the value of sleep throughout the years. It became a badge of honour if we gave up sleeping to finish big work projects, study for an exam, or have an active social life and still get to work on time. As it turns out, our brains are very busy during the night, and sleep is necessary. During the day, we bring in lots of signals meant to become memories. These signals are held in the hippocampus (center of learning and memory) until we go to sleep. The hippocampus scans the brain for similar memories and consolidates this new memory with others that are already encoded. This consolidation increases signal strength to make recall easier, but the memories will never be exactly as you remembered them.
A second function takes place in our brains while we are sleeping. We have glial cells (another type of brain cell) that form channels filled with cerebral spinal fluid. These channels run throughout our brains. During sleep, the glymphatic system cleans and flushes toxins and cell debris accumulated in the brain. You put yourself at a higher risk of developing dementia when you don’t sleep.
This is another hardwired gift from our prehistoric ancestors. Our brain is always on alert because its main function is to keep us alive. The acute stress cycle is kicked off automatically when our brain senses danger, real or imagined. Adrenalin starts flowing throughout our brain and body before knowing that we have responded to a stress event. It doesn’t matter how hard we work to have a healthy brain. If we can’t control our life's stress, we negate all of the beneficial changes we made in our brains. When we can’t get out of the chronic stress cycle, we are pushing cortisol, the ultimate stress hormone, throughout our brain and body. Cortisol doesn’t care what it destroys. And our brain takes a huge hit with a loss of neurons and synaptic connections resulting in less brain volume and a lower functioning brain.
Reading about maintaining a healthy brain, and practising this lifestyle, come in at two different levels of awareness. Intellectually understanding the importance of living this lifestyle is paramount to practising it. Commitment to making these life changes results in a high-functioning brain. You can change your brain and, ultimately, change your life.