Americans over the age of 65 are going to rapidly increase in count. In about 40 years there will be more than a 100% increase in this demographic. The aging brain and its related mechanisms that contribute to cognitive impairment is a topic of concern.
Aging-related cognitive impairment is quite different from mental health issues. About 20 percent of the American population has experienced a mental health condition.
The risk of disorder is high for those that have a family history of mental illness, have had traumatic or stressful life experiences, have a history of misusing alcohol or drugs, or have had a traumatic brain injury.
In cases of mental disorder seeking out a qualified healthcare practitioner is essential.
Several changes to the brain affect our quality of life as we age.
Changes in brain functions such as the ability to think are common as people get older.
Aging adults may have:
- Increased difficulty finding words and recalling names
- More problems with multi-tasking
- Mild decreases in the ability to pay attention
Changes in the brain occur as we get older. The body experiences significant change as well.
What is the Brain?
The brain is one of the largest and most complex organs in the human body. It is an organ that communicates in trillions of connections called synapses.
The brain is composed of about 75% water and is the fattiest organ in the body, consisting of a minimum of 60% fat.
The brain is a part of the central nervous system and controls every part of your daily life, from breathing and blinking to helping you memorize facts. It is divided into four main parts:
Forebrain – consists of the cerebrum, thalamus, and hypothalamus.
- Cerebrum – the largest part of the human brain. It encompasses about two – thirds of the brain mass.
- Frontal Lobe- associated with reasoning, planning, parts of speech, movement, emotions, and problem-solving.
- Parietal Lobe- associated with movement, orientation, recognition, and understanding of stimuli.
- Occipital Lobe- associated with visual processing.
Temporal Lobe- associated with perception and recognition of auditory stimuli, memory, and speech.
Midbrain – consists of the tectum and tegmentum. Also called as mesencephalon. It is the portion of the brainstem which connects the forebrain and the hindbrain.
- Hindbrain – consists of the cerebellum, pons and medulla. Its functions are to coordinate motor activity, posture, equilibrium and sleep patterns and regulate unconscious but essential functions, such as breathing and blood circulation.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in the brain and retina.
40% of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) in the brain are made up of DHA. DHA makes up 60% of the PUFAs in the retina. DHA is fifty percent of the weight of a neuron's plasma membrane.
What changes occur to the brain as we age?
The four (4) most significant changes are:
The parts of the brain especially those that support learning and mental activities start to shrink.
The health of the nerve cells that support communication between neurons starts to diminish. Plaque can build up in the brain through aging-related processes.
The flow of blood in the brain may start to decrease. The brain receives 20% of the body's blood supply.
The occurrence and level of inflammation may start to increase. It is associated with injury or disease.
According to the American Society of Nutrition, some dysfunctions of the brain are due to aging-related processes.
"Mitochondrial dysfunction and focused oxidative damage, including primary peroxidation of membrane lipids and polyunsaturated fatty acid by reactive oxygen species, appear to be among the earliest events in pathological aging." ~ Journal of Nutrition (2008)
How does the brain age?
The frontal lobe and hippocampus experience shrinkage. These areas are involved in higher cognitive function. They also help form new memories. The areas start experiencing shrinkage around the age of 60 or 70 years.
Synaptic connections decline and thin the surface of the brain. The thinning of the outer-ridged surfaces reduces cortical density. The fewer the connections the slower the cognitive processing.
Myelin is degraded and the white matter that consists of these myelinated nerve fibers is thought to shrink. The nerve signals between brain cells are diminished and they result in slow processing and reduced cognitive function.
Chemical messengers such as dopamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and norepinephrine decrease in activity. The brain generates fewer chemical messengers with aging and this plays a role in memory and cognition loss as well as increased depression.
What can be done to support an aging brain?
Diet is a critical factor in supporting healthy brain aging. For example, the Mediterranean Diet may slow or prevent cognitive and brain aging.
A diet abundant in olive oil that provides monounsaturated fatty acids and polyphenols, fish that delivers omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamin D, and fruits and vegetables that provide vitamins C, E and carotenoids, folate, and polyphenols support healthy brain function.
Deficits in free DHA are associated with cognitive decline during aging and in neurodegenerative disease. It is the synergistic effects of the various nutrients and healthy life choices that promote healthy brain aging.
Stay mentally active
Stimulate the brain by doing activities such as crossword puzzles, reading, learning to play an instrument and other memory-enhancing actions.
Develop Social Support
Enhanced social interaction lessens depression and stress. Engaging in conversations and social activities can keep your brain working that can result in the enhancement of memory.
Eat the right foods.
Eating the right kinds of food provides the right kinds of nutrition our body needs. Avoiding saturated fats and trans fats can help you keep your arteries clear and cholesterol levels healthy. It can also help lower the risks of stroke that might cause brain damage.
Do not deprive yourself of sleep.
Having enough sleep can result in regenerated cells, increased energy and reduced fatigue that interferes with the ability to understand and retrieve information.
A vitamin such as C, E and beta-carotene help in neutralizing free radicals in the body that helps to promote healthy tissue. Taking vitamin B12 helps promote healthy nerve cells and blood flow that results in better memory. Supplement with omega 3 supplements with potency in DHA - polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).
Supplementation of vital nutrients and nutraceuticals in our diet helps support the anti-aging process. Combination of vitamins, polyphenols, monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids such as DHA is ideal.
In the future, we anticipate therapies such as stem cell therapy will mature and be available to the masses. The therapy aims to restore and possibly reverse aging-related effects.
We can make simple changes, such as improving the diet or increasing physical activity, that go a long way in supporting our anti-aging goals.