Cognitive decline: What happens to the brain with age, how to slow the process?

Brain aging is inevitable to some extent, but it is not uniform. It affects each person, or each brain, differently.

Slowing brain aging or stopping it altogether would be the ultimate elixir for achieving eternal youth. Is brain aging a slippery slope that we have to accept? Or are there steps we can take to reduce the rate of this decline? Weighing around 1.5 kg, the human brain is a staggering feat of engineering, with around 100 billion neurons.

Interconnected by trillions of synapses.

Over a lifetime, the brain changes more than any other part of the body. From the time the brain begins to develop in the third week of gestation until old age, its complex structures and functions change, networks and pathways connect and cut. During the first years of life, the brain forms more than a million new neural connections every second. The size of the brain increases fourfold during the preschool period, and by the age of 6, it reaches about 90% of its adult volume. The frontal lobes are the area of ​​the brain responsible for executive functions, such as planning, working memory, and impulse control. They are among the last areas of the brain to mature and do not fully develop until around the age of 35.

Normal brain aging

As people age, their bodily systems, including the brain, gradually decline. Memory lapses are associated with aging. That said, people often experience these same slight memory lapses in their twenties, without thinking about it. Older adults often worry about memory lapses because of the link between memory impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. However, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are not part of the normal aging process.

Common memory impairments associated with normal aging include:

– Difficulty learning something new: Memorizing new information may take longer.
– Multitasking: Slower processing can make it harder to schedule parallel tasks.
– Memorization of names and numbers: Strategic memory, which helps remember names and numbers, begins to decline at age 20.
– Remembering appointments: In the absence of cues to recall information, the brain can put appointments in “memory” and not access them unless something comes to refresh the memory of the person.

Although some studies show that a third of older adults have difficulty with declarative memory, that is, memories of facts or events that the brain has stored and can retrieve, others Studies indicate that one-fifth of 70-year-olds perform as well on cognitive tests as 20-year-olds.
Scientists are now putting together the pieces of the gigantic brain research jigsaw to determine how the brain subtly changes over time to cause these changes.

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The general changes that researchers believe occur as the brain ages are:

– Brain mass: The shrinkage of the frontal lobe and the hippocampus, which are areas involved in higher cognitive functions and the encoding of new memories, begins around the age of 60 or 70.

– Cortical density: This is the thinning of the outer surface of the brain due to the reduction of synaptic connections. The decrease in the number of connections may contribute to the slowing of cognitive processing.

– White matter: White matter is made up of myelinated nerve fibers that are grouped into bundles and carry nerve signals between brain cells. Researchers believe that myelin shrinks with age and therefore processing is slower and cognitive function is reduced.

– Neurotransmitter systems: Researchers suggest that the brain generates fewer chemical messengers with age, and it is this decrease in the activity of dopamine, acetylcholine, serotonin and norepinephrine that could play a role in declining cognition and memory and increasing depression.
By understanding the neural basis of cognitive decline, researchers can discover which therapies or strategies may help slow or prevent brain deterioration.

Recent findings on brain aging

Several brain studies are underway to solve the riddle of brain aging, and scientists are frequently making discoveries.
The sections below describe some of them in more detail.

The stem cells

In a study on mice that stem cells from the brain’s hypothalamus probably control the speed of aging in the body. This research shows that the number of hypothalamic neural stem cells naturally declines over the life of the animal, and that this decline accelerates aging. But the researchers also discovered that the effects of this loss are not irreversible. By replenishing these stem cells or the molecules they produce, it is possible to slow and even reverse various aspects of aging throughout the body. Injecting hypothalamic stem cells into the brains of old and middle-aged normal mice, whose stem cells had been destroyed, slowed or reversed measures of aging. Researchers say this is a first step towards slowing the aging process and potentially treating age-related conditions.

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“Superagers” are a rare group of people over the age of 80 who have memories as vivid as those of healthy people decades younger.
Studies by scientists at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago compared SuperAgers to a control group of people of the same age.
They found that SuperAgers’ brains shrink more slowly than their age-matched counterparts, making them more resilient to age-typical memory loss. This suggests that age-related cognitive decline is not inevitable.

SuperAgers resist the normal rate of decline seen in average seniors and they manage to find a balance between lifespan and healthy lifespan, that they live really well and that they enjoy the last years of their life. By studying the particularities of SuperAgers, researchers hope to uncover biological factors that may help maintain memory abilities in old age.

Therapies to help slow brain aging

Researchers have discovered several factors that accelerate brain aging. For example, obesity in midlife can accelerate brain aging by about 10 years, and sugary and diet soft drinks can accelerate brain aging.

A growing body of evidence suggests that people who experience the least decline in cognition and memory all share certain habits:

– engage in regular physical activity
– engaging in intellectually stimulating activities
– stay socially active
– to manage stress
– have a healthy diet
– sleep properly.

Recent research highlights a host of ways people can actively take charge of their health and, perhaps, reduce the rate of aging in their brains.

Tips to slow brain aging

To exercise

Physical exercise is a recurring intervention to prevent age-related mental decline. Doing a combination of moderate-intensity aerobic and resistance exercise for at least 45 minutes per session, as often as possible during the week, can significantly increase brain capacity in people aged 50 and over. Similarly, other research found that people over 50 who did little or no physical exercise saw their memory and thinking skills decline comparable to 10 years of aging in 5 years, compared to those who practiced moderate or high intensity exercise.
Essentially, physical activity slowed brain aging by 10 years.

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Play an instrument

Researchers from Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto, Canada, have revealed why playing a musical instrument can help older people avoid age-related cognitive decline and retain their listening skills. Researchers have found that learning to play a sound on a musical instrument alters brain waves in ways that improve a person’s listening and hearing skills. Altered brain activity indicates that the brain is rewiring itself to compensate for illnesses or injuries that might prevent a person from performing certain tasks. This study is the first to observe direct changes in the brain after a session, demonstrating that the action of creating music leads to a strong change in brain activity.

Adopt a healthy diet

A key component of brain health is diet. In 2018, researchers linked omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in the blood to healthy brain aging. Another study also determined that eating foods included in the Mediterranean or MIND diet is associated with a lower risk of memory difficulties in older adults. Research has found that middle-aged people with higher levels of lutein, which is a nutrient found in leafy green vegetables, such as kale and spinach, as well as eggs and avocados, had neural responses similar to those of younger people.


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