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What Neuroplasticity Means for Aging

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No matter the weather, Norbert hikes daily in one of the steep-trailed nature parks in his city. A retired computer specialist, he is an avid photographer, up to date with the latest in the field. He is also 77, he’s spry and witty, and he has a sharp memory (more so since he gave up watching TV).

Age is but a number (no, seriously)

In 2015, people 65 and older accounted for 17 percent of the Canadian population, projected to reach 20 percent by 2024. There are almost 500,000 Canadian people living with dementia, with 25,000 new cases diagnosed every year.

But there are some things we can do to help minimize the risk of developing dementia as we age.

“Mental stimulation, maintaining strong social networks, regular exercise, good quality sleep, a healthy diet, minimal alcohol consumption, and no smoking can help reduce the risk of cognitive decline with age,” says Marissa Gaucher, ND, at HealthQuest Vitality and Health Centre in Kamloops, BC.

Keep moving

Moderate physical activity increases the volume of grey and white matter and boosts cell growth in the brain. That counteracts the physiologically normal shrinking (which, by the way, starts occurring in our thirties).

Sticking to your fitness routine for at least 12 weeks may mean better verbal fluency and a sharper memory.

Join an independent group or sign up for classes at your local community centre or fitness club. That means socializing and a support group to boost your morale when most needed.

Keep learning

Transitioning into the golden age often comes with extra time for sports, continued education, travelling, and various social engagements. Also, many middle-aged people reinvent themselves professionally as they hit their fifties or even later. This is good news for the brain.

A 2019 study examined brain function in a group of older people, aged 59 to 79, and discovered that four months of learning a new language resulted in improved cognition.

Go beyond the comfort zone (crossword puzzles or listening to music is not enough). Learning a new skill or pursuing new ideas or education challenges your working memory, long-term memory, and high-level cognition.

In a recent study, performing easy, familiar tasks in familiar environments, or just socializing alone, resulted in little or no improvement compared to intensive learning. So don’t hold back when it comes to expanding the mind. Your brain will thank you!

Ban loneliness

Good chats and laughs with friends, or a sympathetic shoulder to cry on, are irreplaceable. Countless studies back it up. Older people who experience depression are at a higher risk of cognitive decline. “Depression is common among the elderly, but that doesn’t mean it is part of normal aging,” says Gaucher.

A recent study found that women who have large social networks maintain better cognitive function and seem to be protected against dementia. “Prevention should start as early as possible and be maintained throughout your lifetime to reduce the risk of depression,” advises Gaucher. Eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, and lower your stress levels, she adds.

Surround yourself with friends for emotional support; it’s thought to help keep your brain happy and able to perform daily tasks with ease.

Supplements for brain youthfulness

  • “Multiple studies indicate a potential impact of micronutrient status on cognitive decline, in particular B vitamins, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids,” says Marissa Gaucher, ND. Best sources include fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
  • Consider a good multivitamin supplement that includes vitamin B12, advises certified nutritional consultant Melanie Pouliot. Deficiency, common in older people, is associated with neurocognitive disorders.

The microbiome and your brain

Gut bacteria may improve cognitive function and memory and help in the production of neurotransmitters. Make naturally fermented vegetables, such as sauerkraut, part of your everyday diet or use probiotic supplements.

Smaller portions to defeat age

A lesser appetite is normal in older people, but the brain still needs its energy, so maintaining a healthy diet is essential. “Epidemiologic studies have shown that the ideal diet to slow cognitive decline is the Mediterranean diet,” says Gaucher. Eat mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, as well as fewer processed foods and dairy.

It’s important to note that obesity and diabetes increase the risk of cognitive impairment, depression, and dementia. Obesity has also been associated with prolonged brain inflammation, which is thought to increase the risk of neurodegenerative disease.

At the other end is eating too little. “A main cause of malnutrition in the elderly is reduced dietary intake, due to social, physiological, and psychological factors,” says Gaucher. That can contribute to weight loss and nutrient deficiency, which can, in turn, have an impact on cognitive function.

Some people may experience inefficient digestion and nutrition deficiencies as they age for reasons including lower acid levels, manifested through bloating, constipation, and/or heartburn, according to Melanie Pouliot, certified nutritional consultant at Health by Design Consulting in Kamloops.

Pouliot recommends drinking celery juice (1/4 cup/60 mL) twice a day before meals or chewing a celery stick daily to boost acid production, or eating unpasteurized sauerkraut. Stress can affect stomach acid production, she adds, so try to reduce stress using deep breathing and/or meditation to improve digestion.

Bottom line

You can help maintain brain youthfulness by adopting a healthy diet, a fitness routine, and new intellectual pursuits. Having fun with friends is also a must. The secret, says Gaucher, is a simple one: “Use it or lose it—use your brain, move your body, and challenge yourself!”

Prevent oxidative stress

Air pollutants, alcohol, certain foods, and tobacco smoke contain molecules that can generate free radicals. This can lead to cell damage, increasing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases and premature brain aging. Counteract with antioxidant foods including spirulina, green tea, blueberries, and spinach. Curcumin can also reduce oxidative stress.

Daniela Ginta, MSc, lives in Kamloops, BC. You can find her blog and other articles at thinkofclouds.com.

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