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The Aging Brain

Have you noticed small perceptual changes as a result of your aging brain? We are all concerned about losing our mental abilities as we age. It’s no surprise that the rate of decline is correlated to certain aspects of our physical health.  The brain’s primary function of cognition is a broad term that includes comprehension, memory, judgment and reasoning. This includes learning, decision-making, and language skills. These are skills of intelligence that we have used all our lives and taken for granted. Cognitive impairment can occur at any age, but I’m referring to Age Related Cognitive Decline or ARCD.

A normal function of aging brain is that neurons shrink and die. One of the primary reasons for this is oxidative stress, or an imbalance between reactive oxygen and the body’s ability to detoxify itself. Oxidative stress figures into Alzheimer’s disease, atherosclerosis, heart failure, chronic fatigue syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, and ARCD.

Chronic systemic inflammation caused by cigarette smoking, poor diet, insomnia, and obesity allows irritants to enter the brain. This inflammation causes a delay in reaction time and memory impairment. If you still smoke, preserving your mental functions is yet another important reason why you must stop.

Obesity and diabetes have a surprising effect on brain function. There are a number of studies that conclude that as body weight increases, brain size decreases, which leads to decreased cognitive abilities. There is a relationship between BMI (body mass index) and brain volume deficits. Childhood or midlife obesity can be a predictor of later life dementia. The cognitive impairment becomes worse when compounded with high blood pressure. Diabetes studies also show greater brain atrophy and lower test scores on performance and learning for this population.

Lack of challenging mental activity also contributes to mental decline. The brain is like a muscle that needs to be exercised. Learning new information encourages the brain to establish new neural networks that can be used to compensate for other age-related impairments in brain function.

What to do:

OXIDATIVE STRESS:  A diet rich in antioxidants foods will help mitigate the effects of oxidative stress. I have previously outlined the importance of superfoods like spirulina, green tea, and quinoa. The best antioxidant diet is plant based  rich in vegetables and fruits. A routine of moderate exercise is also very important.

INFLAMMATION:  The most important thing you can do for your brain and overall health is to not smoke. Make a list of all the anti-inflammation foods beginning with your breakfast. Green tea, cloves and ginger are high on this list. You must avoid fatty, sugary, and salty  junk foods.

YOUR WEIGHT:  Being over-weight causes so many health problems in addition to a shrinking brain. Obviously, a healthy diet with restricted calories paired with a good exercise plan is essential. I used to teach the psychology of eating in a weight reduction clinic, so I know that being involved in an organized program is the most helpful. Here is a post on how to eat less from my work in the program: http://blog.creativeretirementforwomen.com/eat-less/

MENTAL ACTIVITY: Physical activity pumps fresh oxygen into your brain and improves memory. Social activity exercises our cognition and produces endorphins. Mental exercise of establishing new neural pathways is another fun part of improving your mental abilities. You can enjoy doing crossword puzzles, playing scrabble, Sudoku, writing, solving math problems or doing any other new or challenging activity that you enjoy. The good news is that the expected cognitive decline is so gradual that most of us won’t notice, as long as we’re healthy.  L. Johnson  (www.creativeretirementforwomen.com)