"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

Our aging brains: How to keep them fresh

By on November 27, 2018 in Columnist with 0 Comments

Jim BrownBy Jim Brown, M.D.

I suspect most humans don’t spend much time thinking about their aging brains unless they feel somewhat forgetful at times.

Speaking from my perspective as an aging senior, I am curious as to what is going on inside my protective skull.

Invariably as we age we frequently become aware of brain issues in our friends and family members.

I find myself marveling at what some call “super seniors” who seem to maintain their mental faculties well into their 90s. One such local senior was my friend Stearns Eason who recently died two days short of his 104th birthday.

I wrote about him in The Good life a few years ago. He wrote his own fascinating biography at age 99. Randy Cooper, who I featured in the same article, is now 95 still playing good golf twice a week and is mentally very sharp.

I don’t think these “super” seniors are just “lucky” or have inherited exceptional genes. Yet they seem to be doing something that we need to know about.

In an interesting study known as the “Nun study,” Dr. David Snowdon, a professor of neurology, enlisted the help of 678 Catholic nuns in 1986 who gave him all their health records as well as agreeing to donate their brains after death. This study is still going on as they haven’t all died.

In general these nuns had very similar life styles, ate the same food, and had roughly the same amount of sleep for decades. None smoked or drank heavily and each had a fairly routine yet meaningful life.

Interestingly, at autopsy several nuns had signs of Alzheimer’s even though they had shown no symptoms of that disease, and all were considered mentally sharp into old age.

It was noted that since their 20s these nuns were all intellectually stimulated through reading, writing, exercising (primarily walking), and avoided head trauma.

A majority had increased levels of folate or folic acid, which is a B vitamin concentrated in green vegetables like broccoli and spinach. Folate is important in producing strands of DNA that help protect our brains.

Age is a risk factor in many neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, cerebral vascular disease, Parkinson’s disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS).

However aging itself does not bring on dementia, according to cellular neurobiologist John Morrison, who specializes in aging.

There are areas in our brains that determine how a scene or experience might stay with you. The hippocampus is the area in our brain that encodes what we experience into our memory. This function does decline with age, making retaining memories more difficult. This is why we seniors might forget where we parked our car or where we put our iPhone.

So what if anything can we do about these changes as we age?

Stress seems to destroy the fibers that allow our neurons to communicate with each other, adversely affecting our hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.

If you think your memory is declining, try to reduce the stressors in you life if possible. If you find the daily barrage of negative news stressful and depressing, turn off your television set. I know of people who have three televisions on in their homes all day long. Personally I can’t think of anything more depressing.

If your favorite team is doing poorly, it might be less stressful to quit watching them play and go for a walk in nature instead.

Studies have shown people between 50 and 90 who are more physically fit showed less decline in brain function over time. The increased blood flow to the brain with exercise may help keep your neuron connections stronger.

I sound like a broken record on this subject, but we need to walk at least 30 minutes or more daily at least five days a week. Brisk walking is preferable if physically possible. Brisk walking is considered to be 100 steps per minute.

Other helpful activities are making new friends since social interactions boost brain function.

Frequent intellectual stimulation can help improve cognitive function. Continue to do what you do best. Musicians and professors seem to keep their skills intact over time even if they forget where they put their glasses.

Sign up for classes that are available to seniors. Reading a good book is a lot healthier than sitting in front of the TV set, which can waste your brain cells and their connections.

One other cause of concern is alcohol that clearly affects the brain including vision, slurred speech, slow reaction times and impaired memory.

Women are more vulnerable to alcohol effect than males.

People who have been drinking large amounts of alcohol for longer periods of time can develop persistent changes in their brains. Studies using CAT scans have shown that male and female alcoholics had significantly greater brain shrinkage than in normal control subjects.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that women who drink alcohol should only drink one alcohol drink a day and men two drinks per day.

A recently published study however tells a different story. Some 340,000 persons were involved in this study which concluded that even drinking “lightly” within federal guidelines, four or more days a week may raise the risk of early death by 20 percent versus drinkers who imbibed alcohol three days or less per week.

I am surprised at the large variation in the amount of alcohol in what is considered to be in a ”standard” drink.

A 12-ounce beer contains 5 percent alcohol, nine ounces of malt liquor has seven percent, hard apple cider contains between five to 12 percent alcohol, five ounces of wine has 12 percent, a 1.5 ounce of a distilled drink (whisky, rum, tequila, vodka) contains 40 percent alcohol. A 2.5-ounce cordial, aperitif or liquor contains 24 percent alcohol, a jigger of brandy or cognac has 40 percent.

This is something to think about for those who are daily drinkers of alcoholic beverages. Just remember not all alcoholic drinks are equal and therefore drinking one a day for females or two drinks for males is referring to the lower alcohol content drinks.

One final note, if a loved one seems to be having bothersome memory problems, don’t just assume it is dementia. It might be related to dehydration as many elderly do not drink enough water, and coffee doesn’t count.

Other possible causes might be depression, thyroid problems, urinary infections, over-the-counter medications including antihistamines, and poor nutrition.

Have your loved one examined by a physician or, if possible, a psychologist as well.

Jim Brown, M.D., is a retired gastroenterologist who has practiced for 38 years in the Wenatchee area. He is a former CEO of the Wenatchee Valley Medical Center.

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