High mileage on your brain’s odometer? Add some octane to keep it running at top speed!
By Jeanie McKay
Somewhere around mile marker 55 of life, many people begin to notice a few rattles, pings, and knocks coming from their mental engine. At times, that hot-rod brain that served them so well in their youth can perform more like a rusty jalopy as the years go by. Perhaps they forget to pack an important item in the motorhome before a road trip. Their mind goes blank when trying to recall the name of someone they met at a recent RV rally. Or they drive down the interstate for several miles before realizing they missed their exit.
If you are like most people who are close to or have passed their double-nickel birthday, you may publicly joke about “senior moments.” But privately, you worry about what these glitches foreshadow.
Scientists have not yet figured out how to keep us young, but they certainly have learned how to keep us old . . . really old. This in itself isn’t such a bad thing. In fact, we are told that healthy, active baby boomers who are blessed with good genes can potentially expect to live for 90 or even 100 years. That seems like plenty of time to travel and enjoy the RV lifestyle. But what good are those extended years if a high-performing brain doesn’t take the ride with you?
For many years, scientists thought that human beings were born with a fixed number of nerve cells “” or neurons “” in their brains. They believed that over time, an individual’s neurons gradually died off. When enough of them were lost, the person would drift blissfully into the foggy world of dementia. New research, however, suggests that your future does not depend solely on some lucky roll of the cosmic dice. Thanks largely to the power of innovative brain-imaging technology, researchers are putting the pieces of the aging brain puzzle together. They recently have discovered that a great deal of cognitive loss and dementia is preventable.
How Does Your Brain Change As You Age?
In the same way that your body naturally ages, your brain also will lose some of its strength, flexibility, and mass. Unfortunately, the regions of the brain most vulnerable to shrinkage are the frontal lobe (important for higher cognitive functions) and the hippocampus (a key structure for encoding new memories). Many studies also have linked aging with decreases in the brain’s white matter. The white matter consists of myelin-sheathed axons that carry nerve signals between the brain regions. The myelin surrounding some axons shrinks. Since myelin normally enhances nerve signal transmission, this may explain the decreased “speed of processing” that commonly occurs with aging.
Despite such changes, researchers have found that much of the forgetfulness attributed to aging is not necessarily due to a loss of memory. In fact, unless the brain is affected by neurological disease or impairment, age-related memory “glitches” are caused by signal slowdowns that affect the brain’s ability to absorb, store, and retrieve information.
Despite common and normal processing slowdowns and brain balks, research has provided evidence that older brains are just as capable of learning new information in the second half of life as they were in the first. In normal, healthy people the basic mechanics of the brain probably don’t change much with age. It may just take longer for the gears to engage.
There are plenty of seniors whose memories and cognitive abilities are razor-sharp. Amazingly enough, they are living proof of one scientific discovery “” older people with healthy bodies and good attitudes tend to have healthier brains.
Fuel Your Brain With Octane
What is intriguing about these new discoveries is the indication that individuals have a certain amount of control over how their brain ages. The rate at which your brain changes can be accelerated or slowed depending on some key lifestyle factors. If you are intent on a lifetime of cognitive vitality, consider integrating the following octane formula ingredients into your mental engine immediately.
Engage your mental gears. Brain experts are convinced that engaging in “active learning” and new experiences throughout life will help you maintain brain health in your later years. The brain is a learning machine. If you simply replay well-learned skills you’ve mastered earlier in life, your brain is deprived of stimulation. It’s like running an eight-cylinder engine on four cylinders. The more you challenge and fire up your brain, the lower your risk will be for dementia and associated brain pathologies.
Step on the gas and move your . . . . Recent data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that one in three adults over the age of 65 does not engage in any leisure physical activity. Such neglect not only withers the body, but it seriously affects the brain as well. Whenever you increase the circulation in your body, you increase the blood flow to your brain. This is important, because as we age, some areas of the brain are extremely vulnerable to a lack of oxygen. Studies also show that exercise improves concentration and attention. These abilities are important in memory formation and retrieval.
Fuel your tank for efficiency. Your mother was right. Fruits and vegetables are good for you. Antioxidants found in these foods assist the body’s natural defense system. They help neutralize unstable, cell-damaging molecules called free radicals that can hinder good brain health. A study published in the American Academy of Neurology’s journal Neurology in 2006 found that people over age 65 who ate more than two servings of vegetables each day showed 40 percent less mental decline on cognitive tests than those who reported eating little or none. Another benefit that comes with eating fruits and vegetables is that the calories are not only nutritious but also fewer. A group of researchers at Kaiser Permanente studied the correlation of belly fat in middle-aged people. They found that people with excess belly fat were nearly three times more likely to suffer from dementia in their 70s and 80s than people with little or no excess of visceral fat. Surprisingly, recent research suggests that including dairy products in the diet and getting plenty of sleep may help when it comes to battling fat around the middle.
Stay on the sunny side of the street. Believe it or not, a positive outlook on life is one of the most important things you can do to keep your brain healthy. No matter what challenges we face “” inflated fuel prices, grumpy campground hosts, or rough roads “” we can choose to take a glass-half-full attitude. Research shows that long-term exposure to stress hormones such as cortisol may alter normal brain cell structure and function. Interestingly, researchers tell us that it’s really important to work on making connections with others. Participating in a book club, going to a party, attending an RV rally, or volunteering “” all these things boost happiness. Connecting with other people not only makes us feel happier, it also strengthens memory and intellectual performance.
Navigating The Road Ahead
Understand that your brain will undergo normal changes as you age, and seek advice from your physician regarding memory problems or cognitive concerns. Find joy in the fact that you can offset the ravages of time on your brain with some lifestyle changes. Take steps today to keep your engine humming. Engage your gears, fill your tank with power-boosting fuel, steer toward the positive, and get out on the road with others. This octane formula will help keep those cognitive speed bumps from interfering with the quality of your life’s ride.
Jeanie McKay is a corporate trainer and geriatric wellness specialist. She has presented “Octane for the Brain” seminars at FMCA international conventions and is the creator of “Rally Ho! The Travel Trivia Game for RVers.” Ms. McKay recently released her book Octane for the Brain: A Surefire Formula To Boost Your Aging Mental Engine (MindZone Publishing Inc.; 541-382-8785; www.octaneforthebrain-seminars.com).
Researchers at Chicago’s Rush Institute for Healthy Aging discovered that people who use their leisure time for mind-challenging hobbies were approximately 2 1/2 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine stated that older people who exercised at least three times weekly were approximately one-third less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia compared to people who exercised less.