S1E26. What I’ve Learned So Far

This is my 26th blog post, putting me at the halfway point in my first year of doing this, so I thought it might be a good time to summarize what I think I’ve learned so far.

I’ve been reading articles, attending virtual seminars and gathering information wherever I can. What follows is my impression of what we know about age-related cognitive decline, mild cognitive impairment and dementia. (Feel free to correct anything that isn’t right as I fully acknowledge that I might well have misinterpreted or mis-remembered things I’ve come across.)

Here’s my big-picture impression:

The brain is a marvelously complex organ and, as much as we know about it, we really know very little. It has the capacity to re-generate itself and re-wire itself. The more you activate it, the more connections are created between neurons and the stronger it becomes.

However, there are processes at work that can short-circuit the wiring and/or cause cell death. When the damage reaches a critical level, we experience symptoms of cognitive decline, or, as I’ve been describing it, we make more errors.

The brain is resilient and appears to have reserves that can be called upon when atrophy or injury occur, but these reserves have their limits.

We are just at the beginning stages of understanding all of this and the science has a long way to go before we will have any definitive answers. Nonetheless, we have enough information and tools available to begin to fight back.

Here’s what it appears we know:

All of us will experience age-related cognitive decline that is noticeable but does not interfere with our well-being. For about 20% of us, that decline will become pronounced enough to be cause for concern, but it can be managed with a few accommodations. The longer we live, though, the more likely it becomes that we will develop a full-blown dementia.

We don’t really know what causes our brains to misfire. There are correlational studies showing relationships between cognitive symptoms and beta amyloid, tau proteins, plaques & tangles, and inflammation, for example, but the evidence is not yet in confirming that any of these things are causal.

It pays to be born lucky. There are genetic factors in play making some people more at risk and others seeming to possess inherited protective qualities. White males are less prone to dementia than other groups.  

Lifetime experiences influence your risk of developing dementia in later years. It helps to have attended a good elementary school and to have earned an advanced degree. Diabetes, concussions and strokes are very harmful. Having a career in which you interact with a lot of people is protective.

About 40% of all dementias can be prevented with fairly simple behavioral changes. Another way of phrasing this is to say that there are things you can do to reduce your risk of developing dementia by 40%. The earlier you adopt a brain-healthy lifestyle, the greater the benefits in your later years, but benefits can accrue no matter when you start.

There are 5 aspects to living a brain-healthy lifestyle:

  1. Exercise: Maintaining a strong system of blood vessels in the brain to provide nourishment and remove debris and strengthening the vast multitude of neurons involved in movement provide a one-two punch against decline.
  1. Diet: A heart-healthy diet is a brain-healthy diet; eating lots of whole grains, nuts, berries, colorful vegetables, leafy greens, beans and olive oil, while minimizing your intake of animal products and saturated fats is protective.
  1. Cognitive Challenge: it goes beyond ‘use-it-or-lose-it,’ encouraging us to embrace and engage in new and novel activities to force our brains to grow connections which are protective and add to our brain’s resilience against atrophy.
  1. Social Engagement: Interacting with others is the apex of brain activity and triggers a wide array of beneficial neurotransmitters and hormones.
  1. Miscellaneous: Eliminating risk factors like smoking and drinking alcohol are important; getting a good night’s sleep and managing stress are known to reduce symptoms.

I’ll try to spend some time exploring each of these pillars of brain health in the months ahead. But I won’t just be exploring them from an academic standpoint. Although I consider myself a ‘subject’ in this self-styled experiment of mine, that doesn’t mean I have to guess whether I got the placebo or the real treatment! I will be actively implementing behavioral changes in each category to try to gain whatever advantage I can squeeze out.

I invite you to join me!

___________________

7 Comments

  1. tencat9511771 says:

    You could submit this blog for publication. Kudos!

    I do want to comment on your statement:
    “… genetic factors in play making some people more at risk and others seeming to possess inherited protective qualities. White males are less prone to dementia than other groups. “
    Having a white male advantage may have less to do with genetics and not to do with the overall cultural and social advantage of being a white male. Your paragraphs following this ‘genetic’ proposal speak of lifetime experiences and it is those lifetime experiences that are now being discovered to have prevalence. Inflammation and epigenetics are in their infancy as avenues of influence over one’s current health status. And both are influenced by life experiences.

    And so I accept your invitation! Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Martin says:

    Yet another post that so resonates with me and I suspect most of us. My greatest fear is that I will be the last one to know that I have cognitive decline, thus continuing the lifelong tradition of making a fool out of myself. However, the exercise and diet bits I do really well and these are mitigations and may my buy me some time. On the other hand, the social engagement bit is a problem, I’m becoming more curmudgeonly by the day and it seems sooooo, soooo, right. oh well.
    m

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Social engagement is the toughest of the protective factors for me, as well. Maybe we can get together and talk about it sometime? 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Martin says:

        Great! drop ,me an email. look forward to a cantankerous discussion of Curmudgeonry!
        m

        Like

      2. Richard Clay Piper says:

        Our daughter is a music therapist and has learned a great deal about how music affects the brain. Her description of how the brain can re-learn even huge cognitive functions just stays with me. A good example: Gabby Giffords credits her music therapist with helping her learn to speak again after a bullet went through her brain. The theory is that the bullet took out the major “highways” of speech centers in her brain. The music therapy used smaller brain circuits that slowly got “larger” as the therapy progressed and eventually they became large enough to handle the huge volume of connections required for speech. With speech therapy, these newly enlarged circuits adapted to enable the speech function. Just amazing.

        For some insight into how deeply music goes into the brain, watch the Glen Campbell documentary “I’ll Be Me”. A tough movie, as it shows Glen’s decline due to Alzheimer’s. But also remarkable for the caring people around him and his ability to still perform.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thanks for elaborating on the relationship of brain function to music. The top 2 recommendations for keeping your brain active and healthy are (1) learn to play an instrument and (2) learn a new language.

        Like

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s