Our Brains, Memory, and Aging

As I progress through each year of my life, I become increasingly more curious about the impact aging and my lifestyle has on my health. There are an array of theories that exist about healthy lifestyle and prevention of mental deterioration, many of which conflict with one another. We may be told to live a stress-free lifestyle by getting sufficient hours of sleep each night to live a long and healthy life. Then again, another source may say to keep the mind continually active, get plenty of exercises, and remain adequately active to remain spry and youthful. So, then, this question is…which of these theories are correct?

In a recent workshop I attended titled Memory, Aging, and Sleep, presenter Dr. Beverly White shared extensive evidence that a combination of all of the above theories are necessary, to some varying degree. Sufficient sleep, stress management, exercise, and even having a little stress in our lives can all have positive impact.

How could this be? Well, let’s begin with a very brief study of the human brain.

The Human Brain

Our brains are comprised of three basic smaller “brains.”  These include the following areas:

  • The “Archaic Brain” – The Basal Ganglia

The Basal Ganglia are actually a cluster of structures that rule the functioning of our instinctual behavior, such as defending territory and staying safe. In reptiles like snakes and lizards, this is the primary area of the brain that is developed. Human pathologies related to dysfunction of this area of the brain include Parkinson’s disease, Attention Deficit Disorder, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It is located in the center of the brain.

  •  The “Old Brain” – The Limbic System

The Limbic system is sometimes referred to as the “subconscious brain.” The word limbic means “edge” or “the border,” meaning that this structure is what forms the inner border of the cortex. Structures included in the limbic system are the Hippocampus (which is larger in females), and the Amygdala (which is larger in males). Several important functioning occurs in this area of the brain, including memory formation, emotions such as fear and anger, mood changes, attention processing, and spatial memory and navigation.  Control of the endocrine system also occurs here, which is responsible for controlling temperature, sexual arousal, and our sleep/wake cycle. Other mammals that share development of this area of the brain with us include cats and dogs.

  • The “New Brain” – The Cortex

The Cortex exceeds in complexity over any machine we have ever built. This area is referred to as the conscious brain, and is located in the outer portion of the cerebrum. It is the part of our minds that formulate complex thoughts, higher cognition, abstract thought, comprehension of language and social behavior. Humans are unique in the development of this area of the brain. The cortex is so large that it would not be able fit through the birth canal if un-winded. Luckily for us females of the species, the body developed with great wisdom and kindly folded the cortex several times so it is almost crumpled in appearance to make for easier birthing.

 

Aging

So, now that we’ve explored the basic components of the brain, let’s discuss some factors that impact our brains and the aging process.

Aging is inevitable. No amount of plastic surgery will prevent our inside organs from eventually getting older. Anatomical research gives us a grim outlook on aging. The reality is that our brains begin to shrink at age twenty, and cerebral blood flow is gradually reduced by about 15-20% as a result. A more positive factor, however, is that our lifestyle plays into about 70% of how long and healthy of a life we live. Genetics only play about 30%. This means that as adults, we have control over much of how we experience this inescapable transition. There are certain lifestyle choices that Dr. White referred to in her lecture as being “brain busters,” meaning that they can have a negative impact on how rapidly we age. These busters include the following:

  • Alcoholism
  • Chronic depression
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Heart surgery
  • Hypertension
  • Sleep apnea
  • Chronic stress

Physical fitness for healthy gums

Yes, exercise actually plays a part in the health of our gums.

Another primary cause of brain aging, more specifically related to memory and the deterioration of the hippocampus, is periodontal disease, which can dramatically increase our risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. So, the next time the dentist harps relentlessly about sticking that waxy string between your teeth twice a day, it may be best to take it to heart. A new study (conducted by the British Dental Health Association in 2011) looked at more than 4,200 individuals and found that those with fewer of their own teeth were at increased risk of memory loss and/or early stage Alzheimer’s disease.

Interestingly, though, there is also a direct connection between obesity and periodontal disease, according to a 2011 study conducted by the British Dental Health Association. This is a serious epidemic in America, where obesity has risen from approximately 14% of the population nationwide, to 69% of the American population today!  For this reason, regular physical activity is pertinent in memory health, especially as we age. Muscle burns four times the calories fat does. However, it is determined that only about 1/3 of Americans regularly exercise, which may account for the whopping 69% statistic.

Although these statistics may seem disheartening, research shows that it is also never too late to begin a more active lifestyle. A study Dr. White presented showed that a group of people aged 90 and over started mild muscular strength training and physical exercise, and each one’s health improved by 180% after a month of exercise. Another encouraging fact is that it need not take a considerable amount of time. About thirty minutes of cardiovascular fitness per day can have a significant impact.

Choosing a fitness activity you love is pertinent for self-motivation. I recall about twelve years ago, a friend of mine who loved running encouraged me to try it with her a few times a week. Every morning that I prepared run with her it seemed like a wretched chore, not to mention that my knees were beginning to feel like they were constructed with cracked cement. I dreaded getting out of bed the mornings I knew I was going to run. The reality is that I hate running, no matter what time of the year it is or where the activity is located. My friend, on the other hand, found running to feel like therapy. She said it helped alleviate stress, free her mind, and even solve inevitable life problems and decisions for her. Later that same year, I began to explore my yoga practice more deeply. A recent trend that was just breaking in America at the time was hot vinyasa style yoga, which includes flowing yoga asanas (postures) in a heated room, and sometimes includes strong yoga pose holds that help to build strength. There is also a component of yoga that emphasizes breathing, on focusing the mind, and on letting go. I found this practice to be powerfully therapeutic. I treasured my yoga practice so much that I made it as much of a life priority as going to work or eating lunch every day. It became a lifelong practice for me that I actively both practice and teach today.

Mental Exercise

Our bodies cannot do it alone. Another primary factor in preventing mental deterioration is to keep the mind exploring. This begins with mental exercise. There is substantial evidence that shows that if we don’t continue to learn new information throughout our lives, that our declarative memory (explicit memory that demands making a conscious effort to recall) will deteriorate much more rapidly. Learning new skills such as a foreign language, playing a musical instrument, or dabbling in creating visual arts can keep the mind active and young. Reading and writing can also utilize some of the same areas of the brain that help to keep our minds young. As with physical exercise, the key again is to choose something you love, or at least have a significant interest in. Motivation is always necessary first.

Can depression interfere?

…Absolutely, it can. Our levels of some of the key chemicals in our brains may be low if we experience chronic depression. This can include norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. Deficiency in any of these chemicals, over long-term, may put us at a higher risk of developing dementia. Since this is an inevitable emotion that everyone experiences at some point in his or her life, however, we will all at some point need to find ways to cope with experiencing some degree of depression. Depression can decrease our motivation for both physical and mental exercise. However, this perspective can be turned around as well. Mental and physical exercise also can help to prevent long-term depression, and has been shown to be a catalyst for snapping us out of depressive episodes as well, even if its for short-term periods of times. So, whereas being depressed may decrease our motivation, forcing ourselves, even when not motivated, to partake in an activity may be just what we humans need. Perhaps it may take a friend’s encouragement by stopping by for a walk (preferably in the sunshine for vitamin D, which also helps alleviate depression), or just to talk and be supportive. In fact, this segues nicely into the next key factor in preventing aging…

You’re not alone

We have over seven billion people that exist on the planet, and no matter how unique you fancy yourself to be, from a number so large, there are bound to be some of those people that are similar to you in some way that you connect with. We are not here alone, and with good reason. A Harvard study of adult development has shown that lonely people are 50% more likely to develop dementia and/or die younger. Staying connected to others is pertinent in our lives. In fact, studies of the brain show that we are hardwired to seek companionship. This need not mean that one has hundreds of friends, either. We are all distinctive beings, and some people may prefer more alone time and a smaller circle. Having even a couple of reliable friends and a close partner may be all some need. Just as it is important to learn new skills and develop new interests to keep the mind active, though, it is also important to remain open throughout our lives to the possibility of new friendships. We may outlive our partners, or even our close childhood friends. Circumstances in our lives may cause us to move to new locations, or changes we do not anticipate with current partners or old friends may occur. We can form new friendships at age ninety-five if are minds are aware and we still have the ability to connect. It has been shown that the brain shrinks more slowly when we have healthy human relationships with others. It is one of the most primary keys to both our mental and physical longevity. Physical touch, likewise, should not be discounted. Sexual connection has numerous health benefits, as does non-sexual touch. Massage Therapy and even hugging can help us to sleep better and keep our memories healthy.

In the not so distant future, I will explore the topic of love and our brains, and just what a significant role it plays in our overall well-being.

Oh…but perhaps I almost forgot to mention the most important ingredient of all for a youthful mind. Nonsense. Yes…pure silliness. Those cheesy expressions you may find written on plaques and greeting cards everywhere that say to “laugh often,” or state laughter as being the “best medicine” mean what they say. Laughter reduces stress, protects the nervous system, boosts immune function, and activates the frontal lobe of the brain. So, I will end here with a quote from the infamously clever Dr. Seuss, who still remains one of my favorite authors today:

“I like nonsense. It wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living. It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.”