Many of my friends who have reached middle age and who have gone through the menopausal transition worry about those “senior moments” that seemingly crop up more and more. Are we losing our minds? Are these the first signs of dementia? Is this typical aging?
A new study out of Columbia University Medical Center is starting to provide some answers to these questions. The researchers found that age-related memory loss is different from pre-Alzheimer’s disease. And even better, age-related memory loss may actually be treatable.
To do this study, researchers looked at old and young brains that were donated from people who had died who did not have signs of neurologic disease. The researchers explored the molecular makeup of the brains, especially a part of the hippocampus known as the dentate gyrus that is thought to change with aging. The researchers also looked at the molecular makeup of the entorhinal cortex, which is not affected by aging but has been found to be where the onset of Alzheimer’s disease starts. The researchers determined that a specific gene in the dentate gyrus (but not in the entorhinal cortex) starts to misfire in older people and produces less of a key protein, RbAp48.
The researchers then started another phase of the study that involved mice since they mirror the human experience of forgetfulness in aging. The researchers found that cutting levels of the RbAp48 protein in young mice made them lose their way when navigating mazes. These youngsters also performed worse on other memory tests. However, when the researchers increased the levels of the RbAp48 in the young mice, the rodents’ memories improved back to their normal levels.
This finding offers a whole host of new avenues for researchers to follow. It also begs the question whether something in our lifestyle or environment may be causing the depletion of RbAp48.
So what steps can you take to sharpen your brain? Here are some suggestions based on research:
- Obviously, challenging your brain in new ways is important. So you can try puzzles, computer games, Sudoku, etc. You also can engage the brain in different ways to do familiar tasks. For instance, I like to try to write with my opposite (less-dominant) hand. I also like to practice reading a magazine when its upside down from my perspective. You can also brush your teeth, comb your hair or find other ways to use your other hand.
- Another option is to try doing activities to cause your brain to process information from your senses differently. Some options include eating or showering with your eyes closed. Another way that I've found to get a new sensory experience is through geocaching since you have to search for "treasures" using a variety of senses along with your eyes.
- Learning “new tricks” is also a good way to exercise your brain, especially when it’s an activity that uses many parts of your brain. These "tricks" can include learning a new language, playing chess or bridge, or learning a musical instrument. I have just started to learn to knit. I like it because it uses a number of senses and I have to learn how to think through how to create different patterns. Plus since I spend a lot of time with words through writing and reading, knitting uses lots of different parts of my brain that haven’t gotten much exercise recently.
- Lower your stress level! Cortisol (which is the stress hormone) limits the growth of nerve cells as well as the interactions between these cells. So find ways to alleviate stress.
- Sleep is important in brain health. You need to get a good night's sleep to keep your brain healthy. Therefore, getting quality rest a priority in your life. If you think you may have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor about getting a sleep study test.
- Exercise is really important. Doing as little as 30 minutes of brisk walking daily can increase blood flow to the brain and improve the factors for neural growth and brain connectivity.
- Make heart healthy choices. Increasingly researchers are finding that heart health and brain health are connected. So try to eat a heart healthy diet, control your blood pressure, maintain a healthy weight and avoid developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
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