LIVING HEALTHY – DR. JOHN KALB – Brain aging is a myth. Really? The very idea, currently being proposed with a straight face by some brain researchers, seems both preposterous and promising. We’ve all heard how millions of Americans are suffering and dying from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. We’ve heard that there is no cure, that we are doomed to continue spending billions of dollars caring for these patients, and that things are only going to get worse. Well, where there’s bad news there’s often good news that gets overlooked. Let’s separate truth from fiction by studying four well researched and verified myths of brain aging.
Myth #1: Brain deterioration is inevitable as we age. Media and scientists alike perpetuate this myth. But new research indicates that healthy brains can continue functioning effectively until the very end of life. Healthy is the operative word here. Alert researchers discovered that when those who eventually got dementia, including Alzheimer’s, were excluded from the data, those brain function curves pointing down with age leveled out. In other words, healthy people maintained healthy brain function.
In fact, researchers learned that our crystallized intelligence—how well we re-use previously learned information and skills—can actually improve with age, like good cheese and fine wine. Fluid intelligence—how well we learn and adapt in new situations—can also be increased with the right kind of brain stimulation and training. For instance, certain computer games have been shown to improve brain function in real-life situations. This is all very promising and leads us to the second myth, which is a corollary of the first.
Myth #2: We are helpless to prevent brain deterioration. We now know that a healthy diet combined with high levels of physical, mental, and social activity, will unleash your brain’s potential. Beyond these brain basics, there are additional tools and techniques for building a better brain. You have the power to significantly reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases. In a great reversal of dogma, the brain is now considered to bethe most adaptable organ in the body and has a remarkable ability to compensate for whatever losses do occur. With neuroplasticity, our moment-by-moment experience constantly wires and rewires our brain. We can self-direct this process through our intention, attention, and attitude—how we choose to live and how well we take care of ourselves. The key is to play an active role in our own brain health.
Myth #3: The incidence of Alzheimer’s and dementia is relentlessly increasing. This myth has been repeated like a constant drumbeat and, until very recently, was blatantly obvious. But cutting-edge research has uncovered a game changer! As reported in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, brain deterioration has been decreasing among baby boomers. This is not the result of exotic brain surgery or a magic pill. It has been attributed to healthier lifestyles, increases in lifelong learning, and the prevention of heart disease. This is great news because these strategies are well within reach of most of us.
Myth #4: Any physical deterioration in brain structure automatically equals deterioration in brain function. Another encouraging observation has been made. Apparently a significant number of highly functioning older people were found to have advanced Alzheimer’s type deterioration in their brains. But it didn’t seem to affect them. What may explain this is something called cognitive reserve. The more early education we have and the more we have continued learning throughout our lives, the better we can adapt to the aging process.
I hope you find all this as inspiring as I do. Current research is confirming that we are not helpless victims in the face of brain aging. Starting with the basic brain builders of physical, mental, and social activity and a healthy diet, we can protect our brains and enhance our lives for many, many years. They say you are as young as you feel. Perhaps we can add to that: you are as young as you think.