Does aging damage our brains?
Many of us, including family caregivers in the throes of caring for aging loved ones, hold a belief that the natural consequence of aging is a decline in our mental function.
After all, don’t our brains age the way our bodies do? Our face gets wrinkly, why not our brains?
It is hard to argue that age and loss in brain function don’t go hand in hand when the belief has been ingrained in us that memory loss and brain loss are directly related to our age.
Aging brains do exhibit a shrinkage, or atrophy when measured under scans. But, it seems that our brains may not be declining as we might think.
Cognitive Neuroscience Discoveries
A type of psychology that measures brain activity as it relates to human thought is called cognitive neuroscience. Its focus is how our brains shape our behavior, including asking questions to form memories and which areas of the brain control this.
Recent discoveries by cognitive neuroscientists indicate our brains may not be declining the way we think they are. It appears our brains are malleable, flexible enough to tell other parts of the brain to pick up the slack if needed.
Aging brains can, when necessary, reorganize themselves and change for the better.
Using MRI studies, it can be seen that various regions of the brain are being used during different tasks. The imaging can measure the blood flow to these areas of the brain while it is in action. Compared to younger people, older adults use both sides of the brain as well as anterior portions to complete a task, while younger people use only one lobe or posterior areas.
Scientists also found that new neurons or brain cells can be produced throughout our lifespan not just when we are young.
It is interesting to note that new learning endeavors were found to stimulate the survival of these new neurons.
There are therapies underway now to stimulate or suppress our neurons externally using transcranial magnetic stimulation. This is done by attaching electrodes to the scalp or using a handheld device over the head. It is non-invasive. This has hopes of being a way to study the brain further to understand how it works, especially in aging.
Can Aging Brains Benefit with Workouts?
If, indeed, we have learned that our brains are capable of remodeling to complete a task and we can improve the growth of neurons, will working out our brains using specific processes improve the functioning of our brains as we age?
Here are just some of the things we can do to help senior loved ones sharpen their brains.
- Learn a new skill. Choose something your senior has never done before such as quilting, playing a musical instrument or creating digital photos. Try learning a new language.
- Be physically active. Being active helps not just your body but your brain too!
- Socialize! Enjoy other people’s company. Don’t let your senior stay isolated. Let them converse, be engaged and reminisce with others to keep their brain stimulated.
- Exercise the brain. It doesn’t matter what your senior does to challenge their brain, but activities that test the brain everyday will help. It could be simple things, like combing their hair or brushing their teeth with their non-dominant hand, doing crosswords, doing brainteasers and math problems; anything that will give the brain a workout. It is most effective when the task is new and different.
- Get enough sleep! The brain needs a good rest just like the body. Allow it to restore itself while sleeping.
- Meditate. It is thought that relaxation as with meditation can help the brain.
- Get creative, express yourself. Using a variety of art means, such as painting, drawing, singing, playing music or other arts, can help sharpen a senior’s brain.
- Stop smoking.
- Eat well. Have your senior include a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, lean protein and whole grains in their diet. Limiting fat intake that clog arteries to the heart and the brain will also help.
Brain Training Wearable
There are new and innovative products coming to the health wearable technology market. These products will help us connect to our brains in the same way that neuroscientists were in the above reviewed studies.
One such product is called Muse. It is a self-described brain sensing headband that connects wirelessly to your smartphone. It is designed to help you calm your mind in a few minutes. Once your mind is calm, it is easier for you to focus. The manufacturers say that you can perceive more, learn more, and accomplish more when your mind is focused.
How does it do this? You put on the headband that contains sensors. The sensors measure your brain’s activity in the same way a heart monitor would. You then track your brain activity and learn ways that you can improve its function. The wearable device allows you to track your brain activity moment to moment. By focusing and thereby relaxing your mind, it is predicted that you will reduce stress and gain benefits.
I was able to try the Muse out a few times myself (we purchased one) and found it to be an interesting concept but one that may be difficult for some to benefit from unless highly motivated. It requires you to get very still and contemplative to focus on a task. Wearing the headband was pretty straightforward and after a little while I didn’t even notice it anymore.
I have had experience with guided imagery so was able to settle in and concentrate at the task at hand. Some people who have trouble sitting still may not find it very helpful. Using the smartphone app, you are told in a calm voice what to do. After a few minutes you are given data about how well you were able to attend to the task and become calm.
With practice, I feel that I could improve my results. How this will actually relate to health benefits will remain to be seen.
Will it Help Seniors?
This doesn’t seem like something seniors with dementia could do very well so should be thought to be more for prevention of cognitive impairment rather than help to calm seniors with dementia.
This product and others that will certainly come next to stimulate our brains will need more study to determine if they will help protect our brain function as we age.
We expect more research studies that can tell us how our brains are aging and what lifestyle factors impact our brain function. Some of these changes are pretty simple to adopt and worthy of trying.
Some of the new technological devices are interesting to try and provide hope for what could happen in the future. We will bring you more of these as we find them.
An aging brain is not to be feared but seems as though our seniors and us too will need to nurture it to keep it as healthy as can be in the future!