9. Although we tend to conflate Alzheimer’s Disease with dementia, there are actually several different types of dementia with somewhat different presentations, afflicted brain areas, and trajectories. The early stages of Parkinson Disease, for example, affect motor control and movement, and can then progress on to dementia. Treatment can help manage symptoms, but there is no cure to date that can halt the death of cells in the affected brain region, the substantia nigra. To learn more, here’s a link to the American Parkinson Disease Association.
The lecture also covers strokes, which are blockages or ruptures in brain blood vessels that result in neuron death and subsequent loss of functions controlled by the affected areas. Up to 80% of strokes can be prevented. You can learn more at the American Stroke Association web site.
10. The content of this lecture will be quite familiar to regular readers of this blog: the keys to aging well are exercise, cognitive challenge and social engagement.
Studies have shown that exercise can reverse the normal decline of volume in the hippocampus and, along with it, the expected age-related decline in memory performance. But it doesn’t stop there. Physical activity leads to the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, to higher levels of nerve growth factor that stimulates neuronal growth, to increased resistance to brain damage over time, and to improved cognitive performance.
Bottom line: the single most impactful thing you can do to take care of your brain is to stay active. Although it’s not mentioned in the lecture, current thinking is that about 150 minutes of exercise per week in sessions that last about half an hour or so will provide maximal protection.
Not far behind in terms of protecting your brain health is social engagement. Positive social interactions are protective and it appears that the more of them you have, the higher your level of protection (i.e., the greater the drop in your risk for developing dementia).
It’s a bit frustrating, though, because we’re not told what constitutes enough social interaction to receive the maximum benefit. Living with someone is better than living alone, but how much interacting with others will lower your risk beyond that? Does ordering a meal at a restaurant constitute a ‘social engagement?’ Or do I need to talk with someone for 5 or 10 or 15 minutes for the ‘treatment’ to be effective. Inquiring minds want to know!
The discussion about cognitive challenge as a protective measure was a lot more satisfying. It turns out that challenging yourself by doing puzzles, brain games, and brain training mostly just help you get better at the task you practice and do not generalize to other aspects of your life. To make matters worse, the time you spend doing crossword and jigsaw puzzles or doing your brain exercises is time you could have spent exercising or socializing. This one hit me pretty hard as I spend about 3 hours every morning doing my games and puzzles. I might have to re-evaluate that. But dang…they sure are fun!
It turns out though, that training specifically targeting executive functioning, episodic memory and processing speed (3 of the areas most affected by aging) can have a meaningful effect on your performance that does generalize to real-life situations.
Alternatively, challenging yourself to learn something new (e.g., to speak another language, learn how to play a musical instrument, take a course) does have protective benefits that generalize.
So maybe that’s what I need to do. It shouldn’t be hard to swap out my game playing time for active learning time…and I might just become a more interesting partner to Sally!
11. Eat right to protect your brain…another topic you should be intimately familiar with if you’ve been following this blog.
People who live in cultures where people live longer than normal eat less than we do, take in fewer calories, eat more nuts, fruits and vegetables, regularly consume fish and legumes (e.g., beans and peas), use a lot of olive oil, and drink a moderate amount of red wine. This is the Mediterranean Diet. In multiple studies, eating like this is associated with living a longer and healthier life. BTW…it also helps maintain cognitive function!
The flip side of healthy eating is knowing what you shouldn’t eat: processed foods, sugary drinks, fried foods and red meat.
The lecture concludes with a discussion of stress. People who live longer tend to live in relatively low-stress environments. In fact, chronic stress accelerates the aging process and impairs brain function.
Minimizing stress in your life is protective. If you can’t change your job, your partner or your living situation, exercise, social engagement, meditation and deep breathing exercises will help.
12. The final lecture explores the study of immortality or, to put it into this blog’s context, learning how to ‘cure’ aging. The two paths currently being explored are gene therapy and stem cell therapy.
Gene therapy involves identifying genes that impact the aging process and inserting new genes that help turn them on or off, depending upon the desired effect. For example, some view age-related declines as the consequence of years of accumulated damage to our DNA. Gene therapy, it is proposed, could be used to enhance the genes that repair that damage. Fascinating!
The technical challenges, though, are gargantuan and it’s going to take quite a bit of time and the development of new technologies to make it work, so no need to get in line for your injection just yet.
The second pathway is stem cell therapy. Stem cells have the ability to reproduce and differentiate into any type of cell in the body, including neurons. The theory is that you could use these neurons to replace cells that have died. But, just as with gene therapy, this research is in its infancy. It’s not coming to a hospital near you any time soon. 😦
Someday, though, we will probably figure out how to prevent aging. So let me ask you this: If you could live forever and be healthy and active and have your wits about you, would you want to?