The aging brain
I had a very weird experience at the start of the year. I had to sign a document with the date, so I wrote my name – not too difficult, thank goodness – but then I went to write down the date. I started to write the month and thought to myself, that’s not how you spell “Febuary” – by then my brain was befuddled and I couldn’t work out how to spell February, so I decided to go and look at a calendar. I got to the calendar and remembered how to spell February (it has two rs!) but at the same time, I realised it wasn’t February, it was actually still January!
Not sure I should have admitted that story (my husband might start lining me up for the rest-home). However, given I lost my father to early onset dementia, I am hyper-aware of brain health and its foe, brain deterioration.
Our brain, like all of our organs, deteriorates with age and that deterioration is not linear - the volume of the brain and/or its weight declines with age at a rate of around 5% per decade after the age of 40, with the rate of decline escalating after the age of 70. It’s also interesting to note that different parts of the brain do not age uniformly.
There are many ways in which our brain ages:
- Certain parts of the brain shrink, especially those important to learning and other complex mental activities;
- In certain brain regions, communication between neurons (nerve cells) may not be as effective;
- Blood flow to the brain may decrease;
- Inflammation increases as a result of the body’s response to injury or disease.
Many of the same factors which protect heart and cardiovascular performance, also help brain health. This is quite logical when you realise with every heartbeat, our arteries carry about 20-25% of our blood to the brain, where billions of cells use the oxygen and fuel (mostly glucose) the blood carries. When you are thinking hard, your brain may use up to 50% of that fuel and oxygen. In general, your brain, uses about 15% of your heart’s cardiac output to get the oxygen and glucose it needs.
As soon as blood circulation to the brain becomes impaired, the brain can suffer short-term and/or long-term damage.
Everything we are taught for good heart health therefore applies to good brain health - a healthy diet (lots of fruit and vegetables) and exercise which keeps our heart in good health also supports essential blood flow to the brain. Good sleep for brain recovery and cementing memories is also vital.
Major “insults” to the blood and oxygen flow to the brain can cause strokes and other brain injuries, even diseases like dementia, by damaging critical brain tissue. The flip side of this is that increasing brain oxygenation can improve brain metabolism and regenerative processes which heal brain injuries.
As well as increasing exercise, sleep and eating a good quality diet, rich in fruit and vegetables, there are certain compounds in plants which aid blood and oxygen flow to the brain. These compounds are broadly described as plant flavanols and are present in many plants from cocoa through to blackcurrants. These flavanols also act as antioxidants, popping up the free radicals which cause damage to brain tissue.
Finally, in the interests of enhancing memory, it’s worth reminding ourselves that our brains are plastic – things we do on a daily basis can make a real difference to both short- and long-term brain health and memory. I just need to keep reminding myself of that before I forget!
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Please contact me (Anna) at anytime email@example.com 027 4861418 or Darcy at firstname.lastname@example.org 027 5992255