We all understand that no magic elixir can stop or even slow down the human brain or skeletal muscles from aging. But is it true?
After two decades of mouse research, Tony Wyss-Coray, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Stanford University, has some ideas about what might work. Follow-up trials with humans have indeed demonstrated the possibilities.
What the research says
According to Wyss-Coray, quoted in the Stanford University School of Medicine newsletter Scope, “when we treated old mice with repeated intravenous infusions of young plasma (the liquid fraction of blood) , these mice became more intelligent, behaving more like young mice on several cognitive tests. Conversely, young mice exposed to aged blood or treated with aged plasma experienced accelerated brain aging and loss of cognitive function.
This means that, at least in the lab, for now, certain techniques that rejuvenate the blood may hold promise for improving the performance of the aging human brain in the future.
In another recent study, “among all American adults, an estimated 41.0% of dementia cases were attributable to 12 risk factors…” including hypertension, obesity, and physical inactivity. So any new activity that stimulates the mind or body helps prevent decline and possibly even dementia. It’s encouraging.
Bruce Goldman, editor for the Stanford University School of Medicine newsletter, reported that the losses in cognitive functioning that begin in midlife, between the ages of 50 and 60, may not be inevitable.
And while the typical word-retrieval difficulties that many seniors have seem just plain boring at first, over time they can lead to difficulties in fluent day-to-day communication. This may cause some to worry about further cognitive deterioration. But self-help strategies are available.
After: 4 things you can do to fight dementia and improve your memory
What we can do on our own
Physical exercise and day-to-day stress management are the best ways to stave off cognitive decline. Most of us already have the necessary tools.
Walking is a good example, and I’m not talking about brisk walking or hiking in the mountains and through forests, just a half hour walk with a dog or a walk alone.
Seniors can also use meditation or mindfulness while doing ordinary routines like washing dishes to lower blood pressure and manage body weight. Beyond that, some actions strengthen neural connections in the brain by simply taking up a new hobby.
If your choice of activities has elements of novelty and complexity and includes problem solving, this is the best elixir currently available to those of us outside of the neuroscience lab. It turns out that older people have more problem-solving skills than any other age cohort. Any problem-solving activity, such as crossword puzzles, will do.
Lily: When will we care about Alzheimer’s disease as much as COVID-19?
Benefits of an aging brain
Over the course of a lifetime, the frontal cortex of the brain automates many processes by forming patterns. It uses a system of shorthand to determine whether something is familiar or not.
If familiar, he searches his records for a way to handle or resolve it behaviorally. This structuring is done with little or no awareness on our part. But in doing so, the elders definitely have an advantage over the younger ones. Our repertoire of events is so much more extensive based on a longer timeline.
Crystallized intelligence, one of two types identified in the mid-twentieth century by American psychologist Raymond Cattell, comprises our reservoir of knowledge and our lifetime experience. And crystallized intelligence leads to what we call wisdom.
Wisdom is the product of a long and exciting life, cumulative decision-making, and stored patterns to facilitate new learning. Fluid intelligence, the other species named by Cattell, is characteristic of young people.
What my research showed
While researching the strengths of the older brain for my book, “The Vintage Years,” I focused on strategies to maintain sharpness and even improve brain function in older people — myself included.
For example, with regard to problem solving, I found that based on a large number of experiences, the aging brain does not need to approach every situation as if it were new. Instead, older people have an unfair advantage because they can draw on decades of experience.
Our current best deterrent to dementia is one over which we have control – using our brains and bodies to engage in new cognitive activities and physical exercise.
While researching “The Vintage Years”, I also discovered that older men and women who have taken up an art form like writing, playing a musical instrument, or a visual art practice like painting or sculpting found ways to exercise their aging brains and bodies. . This even applied to people in their late 80s and 90s.
I interviewed Caroline when she was 90. She began writing memoirs at age 80, and her daily writing practice came after a long walk in the county park adjacent to her senior living complex.
Henry was 96 when I interviewed him. He used a walker, but still took time daily to strengthen his arms using 5-pound weights and leg raises using his body weight. Upper body strength was beneficial to his work as a woodcarver, even in his advanced age.
Also on MarketWatch: Goodbye, senior centers and retirement homes. Older people do not want to spend their time in places where they are seen as declining victims.
The bottom line
Humans have yet to benefit from current experiments in neuroscience labs. Yet certain blood and blood plasma proteins appear capable of halting and even reversing cognitive and muscle aging – in mice.
So, even though it sounds like science fiction, some of these research findings could make a difference to humans in the not too distant future. In the meantime, take up a new hobby, like learning to paint or playing the cello, which I did.
Learn that foreign language that you never had time to do before. Find a physical activity that you enjoy. Or do sudoku puzzles. Maybe your favorite method is cleaning your apartment, gardening, or taking a chair yoga class. Move your body and stretch your mind in any way that gives you pleasure.
Francine Toder, Ph.D. is a faculty member emeritus at California State University, Sacramento and is a retired clinical psychologist from private practice. She is also the author of “The Vintage Years: Finding your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty”. His most recent book is “Inward Traveler: 51 Ways to Explore the World Mindfully”. His extensive writings on a variety of subjects appear in magazines, professional journals, newspapers, blogs, and edited book chapters. She resides in the San Francisco Bay Area.
This article is reproduced with permission from NextAvenue.org© 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.
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