Aging brains and minds
I am a recent graduate of the Wayne State University Department of Psychology’s Ph.D. program in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience, and of the Institute of Gerontology’s pre-doctoral training program. My research has focused on changes in brain structure and cognitive abilities that occur over the adult life span in healthy adults. We measure brain structure using different types of MRI scans, and we assess cognitive abilities using a variety of different tests of memory, attention, or reasoning. We know that some regions in the brain shrink over time, even in healthy people. However, not all parts of the brain show the same vulnerability to atrophy, and some regions seem to shrink more or to start declining earlier in life than others. In addition, this shrinkage appears to be related to changes in attention and memory. We also know that a host of different disorders ranging from increases in blood pressure or blood glucose levels to different genetic markers can exacerbate these declines. The reality is that age-related changes in the brain and mental abilities are very complex. We are currently trying to better understand how genes may interact with health and lifestyle factors to be either protective or to make people more vulnerable to this decline.
As we all get older, we tend to notice certain things – our memory is not as good as it used to be, or we are slower mentally and physically. Awareness of these changes can be alarming, even if it is not an indication of pronounced problems like dementia. In response to this growing awareness, we are willing to try anything that might possibly stop or reverse these declines in advancing age. We have seen a multitude of products that claim to undo the negative effects of aging. These range from ‘brain training’ software and smartphone apps to vitamins and supplements. Unfortunately, these claims are often based on limited research or from findings from studies using mice or rats that are not substantiated in humans.
Most people have heard the expression, “Correlation is not causation.” This simply means that although two things are related, one does not cause the other. For example, just because increases in homelessness are associated with higher crime rates, does not mean that increased crime is because of homeless people – both tend to increase when the economy is poor. Those selling anti-aging products capitalize on our lack of understanding of this very phenomenon. Similarly, the next time you see an ad or hear a friend talk about how taking a supplement of wahoo-berry extract is associated with better memory, it is important to ask “But does it actually cause memory to improve?” Here’s a link to a site with some more great examples of false or “spurious” correlations: http://www.tylervigen.com/.
By now, you may be asking yourself, “If the claims made by all those anti-aging products might be misleading, then is there anything we can do?” Fortunately, there are some things that have been shown to be particularly helpful to limit the effects of age on our brains and cognition. Unfortunately, they actually require effort, and may require some lifestyle changes as well, and many people struggle making such changes. The biggest protective factor is cardiovascular fitness. The brain is packed with blood vessels, and anything that affects the vascular system can affect the brain. There is also some strong evidence that a large part of the effects of Alzheimer’s disease is related to the impact of the disease on the brain’s vascular system. In addition to physical exercise, cognitive and social engagement and learning new skills seem to be more protective than playing brain training games. Learning a new language, or learning how to dance, how to use digital photography or other skills that integrate social, cognitive, and physical systems seem particularly promising approaches in combatting the effects of age.
In addition to these new activities, it is extremely important for those with chronic conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes to closely monitor their health and to take prescribed medications to keep these in check. Stress is another factor that can negatively affect our brains and cognitive abilities. Because of this, activities like yoga, mindfulness and meditation can help to reduce the stress hormones in our bodies and limit the negative effects on our brains.
Before you go out and plunk down your hard-earned money on products claiming to undo the effects of age, go for a walk, visit with friends, learn a new skill – it will serve you far better.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Wayne State University, the Institute of Gerontology, its employees, directors or programs.