Forgetting things more than usual? Slow to learn new tricks, like a second language? Straining to pay attention, even staying awake? These and related signs of mental decline that often go with aging are not inevitable. On the other hand, they may get worse, leading perhaps to brain degenerative disease such as Parkinson's Disease, dementia or Alzheimer's Disease.
Commonly, our body parts wear out at different rates. Often, the joints start to fail first. Sometimes it is the heart or the liver, or the kidneys—frequently it is the brain.
When the brain starts to deteriorate, it is due to causes elsewhere in the body, such as high blood sugar from diabetes that degrades blood vessels, or cholesterol induced blockage of small blood vessels in the brain, or high blood pressure which can burst or plug vessels. And sometimes the problem originates in the brain directly, such as head ttrauma, or lack of mental stimulation or stress.
Seniors vary widely in mental age. Some brains act their age, others are older than their chronological age, and for some seniors, the brain remains young as the body grows old. Many famous people were mentally advanced for their age (think Churchill, .....). Psychology professsor Carol Barnes recalls that as a graduate student she had two relatives aged 93 and 102 respectively who were quick-witted enough to keep her and her fellow twentysomethings on their toes. Maybe you have had such relatives. Barnes cites one formal study of people 100 years old or more in which 73% were dementia free at the time of their deat
Mental agility depends on connections between neurons, and these connections are made by trillions of little "spines" on the termnals of neurons. These spines are the physical home of "synapses," the functional sites on neurons where neurotransmitters relesed from one neuron bind with receptor molecules to complete the communication between neurons. The more spines the neurons have, the more communication and mental processing can occur. With age, however, the number of spines tends to decline, unless of course, the brain is continually stimulated to keep the spines from withering and even to develop new spines and communication points.
In earlier posts, I have discussed the important preventive strategies of vigorous physical exercise and staying mentally active through repeated intellectual challenge. Controlling blood sugar helps also. But there is a more fundamental aspect of mental aging: brain inflammation.
Seniors are likely aware of bodily inflammation in the form of aching muscles and joints. But inflammation can occur in the brain too, and there the consequences can ultimately lead to brain degenerative disease.
Perhaps you have heard of immune cells in the body and bloodstream. Well the brain has immune cells too, only of a different kind, called microglia.Like the immune cells in the body, microglia can be activated to release toxic chemicals known as cytokines that damage other nearby cells. In the brain, the damaged cells are of course neurons. Two types of cytokines are known associates of Alzheimer's disease, and they may be more than just correlates. They may actuall promote brain degeneration. These two cytokines elevated levels of the brain enzyme that breaks down the transmitter acetylcholine. The only known treatment for Alzheimer's Disease, and it is only symptomatic at that, is to use drugs that produce a compensatory increase in acetylcholine.
... One study has actually shown that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can actually delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Such drugs include aspirin and so-called Cox inhibitors. But before you rush to start using such drugs, be aware that aspirin, for example, can damage delicate stomach lining and kidney cells.
REMEMBER: Whatever affects the brain affects the memory. Whatever affects the memory affects the brain.
Barnes, Carol. (2011). Secrets of aging. The Scientist. (9): 30-35.
Griffin, W. Sue T. (2011) What causess Alzheimer's? The Scientist. (9): 36-
Perry, V. H. (2004). The impact of systemic inflammation on brain inflammation. ACNR 4 (3): 8-9.