There are also numerous disorders and diseases that affect the brain, including neurological (dementia, Parkinson’s, stroke), infectious (meningitis), rheumatologic (lupus and rheumatoid arthritis), cancer (primary and secondary tumors), psychiatric mood disorders (depression, anxiety, schizophrenia), diabetes and heart disease.
These diseases tend to have three signs and symptoms in common: they either cause altered mental status, physical weakness or change in mood — or a combination of these.
Probably our greatest fear regarding the brain is cognitive decline. Dementia, whether mild or full-blown Alzheimer’s, is cruel; it robs us of functioning.
Fortunately, there are several studies that show we may be able to prevent cognitive decline by altering modifiable risk factors. They involve rather simple lifestyle changes: sleep, exercise and possibly omega-3s.
Impact of clutter
Those who are in their 20s seem to be much sharper and quicker. Are they really?
German researchers found in a study that educated older people tend to have a larger mental database of words and phrases to pull from. When this is factored into the equation, the difference in terms of age-related cognitive decline becomes negligible.
This study showed that mental slowing may be at least partially related to the amount of clutter or data that we accumulate over the years. The more you know, the harder it becomes to come up with a simple answer to something. We may need a reboot just like a computer.
Importance of sleep
A study shows that sleep may help the brain remove waste, such as dangerous beta-amyloid plaques. When we have excessive plaque buildup in the brain, it may be a sign of Alzheimer’s.
This study was done in mice. When mice were sleeping, the interstitial space (the space between brain gyri, or structures) increased by as much as 60 percent.
This allowed the lymphatic system, with its cerebrospinal fluid, to clear out plaques, toxins and other waste that had developed during waking hours.
With the enlargement of the interstitial space during sleep, waste removal was quicker and more thorough, because cerebrospinal fluid could reach much farther into the spaces. A similar effect was seen when the mice were anesthetized.
Time to exercise
How can I exercise, when I can’t even get enough sleep? Well there is a study that just may inspire you to exercise.
In the study, which involved rats, those that were not allowed to exercise were found to have rewired neurons in the area of their medulla, the part of the brain involved in breathing and other involuntary activities.
There was more sympathetic stimulus that could lead to increased risk of heart disease. In rats allowed to exercise regularly, there was no unusual wiring, and sympathetic stimuli remained constant. This may imply that being sedentary has negative effects on both the brain and the heart.
We used to think that our brain’s plasticity, or ability to grow and connect neurons, was finite and stopped after adolescence. This study’s implication is that a lack of exercise causes unwanted new connections.
Of course, these results were done in rats and need to be studied in humans before we can make any definitive suggestions.
Omega-3 fatty acids
In the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study, results showed that postmenopausal women who were in the highest quartile of omega-3 fatty acids had significantly greater brain volume and hippocampal volume than those in the lowest quartile. The hippocampus is involved in memory and cognitive function.
Specifically, the researchers looked at the levels of certain acids in red blood cell membranes. The source of the omega-3 fatty acids could either have been from fish or supplementation.
It’s never too late to improve brain function. You can still be sharp at a ripe old age. Although we have a lot to learn about the functioning of the brain, we know that there are relatively simple ways we can positively influence it.
For further information, visit medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.