Brain Health Expert: Patricia Faust
Over the past fifteen years, I have been teaching about our aging brain.
This was always an academic endeavor on my part because, even though I noticed some brain changes, I felt really on top of things. My purpose was to inform others my age. Well, those fifteen years have made a difference and now I look at this information in a very different light.
“That means that our cognitive abilities become altered.”
The Brain And It’s Physical Changes:
Let’s start at the beginning of our brain journey. In the early years of life, the brain forms more than a million new neural connections every second! By the age of six the size of the brain increases to about 90% of its volume in adulthood! Ultimately, at about three pounds of weight, the human brain is a staggering feat of engineering, with about 100 billion neurons interconnected via trillions of synapses.
Then in the 30’s and 40’s the brain starts to shrink, with the shrinkage rate increasing even more by age 60. Although we can see the physical changes that are occurring with aging, we don’t understand that our brain is changing shape also. That means that our cognitive abilities become altered.
These are the changes that happen:
While brain volume decreases overall with age, the frontal lobe and hippocampus – area responsible for cognitive functions – shrink more than other areas of the brain.
- Frontal lobes – behind the forehead; largest lobes in the human brain; considered to be the human behavior and emotional control centers of our personalities.
- Hippocampus – embedded deep within the temporal lobe; plays a major part in learning and memory.
This refers to the thinning of the outer corrugated surface of the brain due to decreasing synaptic connections.
- Cerebral cortex – wrinkled outer layer of the brain that contains neuronal cell bodies, also thins with age
- Lower density leads to fewer connections, which also contribute to slower cognitive processing
“These changes have a major impact on brain function in older adults.”
Consists of myelinated nerve fibers that are bundled into tracts and transmit nerve signals between brain cells.
- Myelin shrinks with age, slowing down processing and reducing cognitive function
- White matter is a vast, intertwining system of neural connections that join all four lobes of the brain (frontal, temporal, parietal, occipital), and the brain’s emotional center in the limbic system
The brain begins to produce different levels of chemicals that affect neurotransmitters and protein production, ultimately leading to a decline in cognitive function.
Why The Neuroscience Lesson?
These changes have a major impact on brain function in older adults. To keep your aging brain healthy, we need to understand the brain. This translates into these actions:
- Difficulty learning something new: Committing new information to memory can take longer.
- Multitasking: Slowed processing can make planning parallel tasks more difficult.
- Recalling names and numbers: Strategic memory, which helps with remembering names and numbers, begins to decline at age 20.
- Remembering appointments: Without cues to recall the information, the brain may put appointments into ‘storage’ and not access them unless something jogs the person’s memory.
Positive Attributes Of An Aging Brain:
This does sound dire, doesn’t it? But there are some positive changes that occur with an aging brain. Older adults have more extensive vocabularies and greater knowledge of the depth of meaning of words than younger adults. Also, older adults may have learned from a lifetime of experiences and accumulated knowledge. In essence, older adults can still do many of the things they have enjoyed their whole lives:
- Learn new skills
- Form new memories
- Improve vocabulary and language skills
But wait! There is more!
Through the recent research of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, we now know that we can slow the brain aging process and increase brain volume as we get older. The brain’s frontal cortex, which is used for problem solving and some aspects of word processing, shrinks with age, but it also shows more activity as you get older. And there is evidence that older adults can create new brain pathways to cope with diminished ones and to increase their processing capability (neuroplasticity).
6 Healthy Lifestyle To Slow Brain Changes:
The inside track to maximize neurogenesis and neuroplasticity is the healthy brain lifestyle. Keep your aging brain healthy, get on board with these lifestyle options.
“Being with other people is the best way to improve cognition.”
Performing a combination of aerobic and resistance exercise of moderate intensity for at least 45 minutes each session on as many days of the week as possible can significantly boost brain power in people aged 50 and over. Older adults in their 60’s and 70’s can benefit from aerobic exercise such as walking, swimming, or dancing. Physical activity slowed brain aging by 10 years
2. Challenge Your Brain:
There are many unique ways to challenge your brain, but it is important to find something that you will stick with. Travel, learn a new instrument, learn a new language, enroll in a lifelong learning course, and enjoy quilting. Being part of activities that engage your brain but also allow you to be with other people are very powerful
Being with other people is the best way to improve cognition. The social interaction and support you receive from friends are critical to good brain health.
4. Eat A Healthful Diet:
Our fast food, highly processed food diet is so bad for our brains and our bodies. Lots of dark green vegetables, dark-skinned fruits, healthy fats (omega-3s), antioxidants (e.g., citrus), stay hydrated are some examples of healthy eating practices. A heart healthy diet is a great brain health diet.
5. Get Restful Sleep:
Our brain has a cleaning system that goes into action when we sleep. The Glymphatic System is channels of glial cells with cerebral spinal fluid flowing throughout. They flush toxins and cell debris from our brains while we sleep.
6. Reduce Stress:
Stress has a catastrophic effect on our brains and bodies. Learn stress-reducing practices such as, breathing techniques, meditation, and mindfulness.
One of the statistics I found when I was researching this information is that this generation of boomers is expected to live 19 years longer on average than our parents. It is our choice to live cognitively and physically healthy through these advanced years, or not. Lifestyle determines how your later years will be.
Aschwanden, C. (March 7, 2021). What really works to help an aging brain. It’s not going to function like it did in your 20s, but there are things you can do. Retrieved from https://washingtonpost.com/healthy/help-for-aging-brains/2021/03/05/717ab738-79d6-11eb-85cd-967fa90c8873_story.htmi
National Institute on Aging. How the Aging Brain Affects Thinking. Retrieved from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/how-aging-brain-affects-thinking
Nichols, H. (September 9,2020). What happens to the brain as we age? Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319185#Therapies-to-hrlp-slow-brain-aging
Public Health Now. (June 10, 2021). Changes that occur to the aging brain: what happens when we get older. Retrieved from https://www.publichealth.columbia.edy/public-health-now/news/changes-occur-aging-brain-what-happens-when-we-get-older
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About the Author:
Patricia Faust is a gerontologist specializing in the issues of brain aging, brain health, brain function and dementia. She has a Masters in Gerontological Studies degree from Miami University in Oxford Ohio. Patricia is certified as a brain health coach and received a certification in Neuroscience and Wellness through Dr. Sarah McKay and the Neuroscience Academy. My Boomer Brain, founded in 2015, is the vehicle that Patricia utilizes to teach, coach and consult about brain aging, brain health and brain function. Her newsletter, My Boomer Brain, has international readers from South Africa, Australia, throughout Europe and Canada. She has also been a frequent guest on Medicare Moment on WMKV and Cincy Lifestyles on WCPO.