What neuroscientists have learned about rejuvenating the aging brain—and what you can do, too
We all understand that no magic elixir can stop or even slow the aging of the human brain or skeletal muscles. But is it true?
After two decades of research on mice, Tony Wyss-Coray, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Stanford University, has some ideas about what might work. Subsequent human trials have indeed shown the possibilities.
What the research says
According to Wyss-Coray, cited in the Stanford University School of Medicine newsletter, Volume, “When we treated old mice with repeated intravenous infusions of young plasma (the liquid fraction of blood), these mice became smarter, performing more like young mice on multiple cognitive tests. In contrast, 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, some blood-rejuvenating techniques may hold promise for improving the performance of the aging human brain in the future.
In another recent study, “among all US adults, an estimated 41.0% of dementia cases are attributable to 12 risk factors…” including hypertension, obesity, and physical inactivity. So any new activity that stimulates the mind or body helps prevent falls and perhaps even dementia. This is encouraging.
Bruce Goldmanwriter for the Stanford University School of Medicine newsletter, reported that the losses in cognitive functioning that begin in middle age, between the ages of 50 and 60, may not be inevitable.
And while the typical word-finding difficulties that many older adults have may seem annoying at first, over time they can lead to difficulties in smooth day-to-day communication. This may lead some to worry about further cognitive decline. But self-help strategies are available.
What can we do on our own
Physical exercise and managing daily stress are the best ways to prevent cognitive decline. Most of us already have the necessary tools.
Walking is a good example, and I don’t mean brisk walking or hiking up mountains and through forests – but simply a half-hour walk with the dog or a solo walk.
Older adults can also use meditation or mindfulness while doing normal routines like washing dishes to lower blood pressure and manage body weight. In addition, some activities strengthen neural connections in the brain simply by taking up a new hobby.
If your choice of activity has elements of novelty and complexity and involves problem solving, that is the best elixir currently available to those of us outside the neuroscience lab. It turns out that older people have more problem-solving abilities than any other age group. Any problem solving activity like crossword puzzles will do.
The powers of the aging brain
Throughout life, the frontal cortex of the brain automates many processes by forming patterns. It uses a shorthand system to determine whether something is known or not.
If it is known, it searches its archives for a way to deal with it or to resolve it behaviorally. This shaping is done with little or no awareness on our part. But in doing so, the older are definitely at an advantage over the younger. Our repertoire of events is much more extensive based on a longer time frame.
Crystallized intelligence, one of two types identified in the mid-20th century by American psychologist Raymond Cattell, constitutes our storehouse of knowledge and life 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 that facilitate new learning. Fluid intelligence, another type named by Cattell, is characteristic of young people.
What my research has shown
While researching the strengths of the aging brain for my book, “The Vintage Years,” I was focused on strategies to maintain sharpness and even improve brain function in older adults—myself included.
For example, when it comes to problem solving, I’ve found that based on a lot of experience, the aging brain doesn’t have to approach every situation as if it were new. Instead, older people have an unfair advantage because they can look back on decades of experience.
Our best current deterrent against dementia is the one we have control over — using our brain and body to engage in new cognitive activities and physical exercise.
While doing research for “The Vintage Years,” I also found that older men and women who engaged in 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 those in their late 80s and 90s.
I interviewed Caroline at the age of 90. She began writing a memoir at 80, and her daily writing practice occurred after a long walk in a county park near 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 dumbbells and leg lifts using his body weight. Upper body strength was useful for his work as a wood carver, even in his advanced years.
Humans have not yet been the beneficiaries of current experiments in neuroscience laboratories. However, some proteins in blood and blood plasma appear to be able to halt and even reverse cognitive and muscle aging – in mice.
So while it may seem like the stuff of science fiction, some of these research findings may make a difference in people in the not too distant future. In the meantime, take up a new hobby, like learning to paint or play the cello — which I did.
Learn that foreign language you never had time for before. Find a physical activity you enjoy. Or do sudoku puzzles. Maybe your preferred method is cleaning your apartment, gardening, or taking a chair yoga class. Move your body and stretch your mind in whatever ways bring you pleasure.
Francine Toder, Ph.D. is professor emeritus at California State University, Sacramento, and is a clinical psychologist retired from private practice. She is also the author of the book “The Vintage Years: Finding your Inner Artist (writer, musician, visual artist) after sixties”. Her latest book is The Traveler Inward: 51 Ways to Mindfully Explore the World. Her extensive writing on a variety of topics appears in magazines, trade journals, newspapers, blogs, and as edited book chapters. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
This article is reprinted with permission from NextAvenue.org© 2022 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.
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