Are forgetfulness and “senior moments” inevitable parts of aging? Many medical professionals (including the doctor in CNN’s news brief above) say it’s perfectly normal to start having memory lapses by the time you reach middle age.
I disagree. In fact, if you notice memory lapses, you may want to seriously consider making some immediate lifestyle changes to help reverse, or at least minimize further damage that might lead to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Fortunately, your brain is actually quite resilient, and has the capacity to regenerate and repair itself, which is given the medical term neuroplasticity. This is new information and not what I was taught in medical school in the late ’80s.
You’ll find that many of the lifestyle changes that will help prevent diabetes will also improve your brain function. There’s good reason for this, as sugar can have an adverse effect on your memory even if you’re otherwise healthy.
Increasing amounts of research also attest to the power of exercise to keep your mind sharp. Other factors that can have a significant impact on your brain function include lifestyle factors such as stress and poor sleeping habits.
The One Part of Your Brain That Appears to Be Protected Against Aging
Interestingly, recent research shows that certain cognitive systems located in the right cerebral hemisphere, such as spatial attention, mysteriously appear to be protected from the ravages of aging.
“Our studies have found that older and younger adults perform in a similar way on a range of visual and non-visual tasks that measure spatial attention,” said lead author Dr. Joanna Brooks.
“Both younger (aged 18 to 38 years) and older (55 to 95 years) adults had the same responses for spatial attention tasks involving touch, sight or sound.”
The question is why? Understanding why certain brain regions are more protected than others may eventually lead to greater insight into brain degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. That said, there’s no need to wait for a medical miracle. You already have the power to improve your memory and other brain functions.
The Influence of Stress
When it comes to brain function, stress is an important factor that can have a direct effect. For example, one recent animal study found that higher levels of stress hormones can speed up short-term memory loss in older adults.
In a nutshell, the stress hormone cortisol has a corrosive effect that, over time, wears down the synapses responsible for memory storage and processing. Previous research has also linked chronic stress with working memory impairment.
Other recent research suggests that stress may even speed up the onset of more serious dementia known as Alzheimer’s disease, which currently afflicts about 5.4 million Americans, including one in eight people aged 65 and over.
While it’s virtually impossible to eliminate all stress from your life, there are tools you can use that will allow your body to effectively compensate for the bioelectrical short-circuiting that takes place when you’re stressed or anxious.
My favorite tool for stress management is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). It’s an energy psychology tool that can help reprogram your body’s reactions to everyday stress, thereby reducing your chances of developing adverse health effects.
In the following video, Julie Schiffman demonstrates how to tap for anxiety and overwhelm first thing in the morning, to help you start your day in a more relaxed state.
Poor Sleep Can Shrink Your Brain and Cause Neuron Degeneration
Stress and poor sleep often go hand-in-hand, and like stress, lack of restorative sleep can also wreak havoc on your brain function. Moreover, it can actually lead to loss of brain volume, and may accelerate onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Part of the reason for this is related to the fact that your brain removes toxic waste during sleep. Sleep is also necessary for maintaining metabolic homeostasis in your brain—without sufficient sleep, your neurons will actually begin to degenerate.
Unfortunately, research shows that you cannot prevent this damage by trying to catch up on sleep during the weekends. So it’s critical to maintain a regular sleep schedule where you get enough sleep on a nightly basis.
Recent research published in the journal Neurology also shows that sleep problems like insomnia can have a distinct impact on your brain volume over time, causing it to shrink—and shrink more rapidly, compared to those who sleep well. This effect is particularly significant in those over 60.
The Importance of Exercise
There are compelling links between exercise and brain health. Most recently, researchers at the University of Minnesota concluded that people who have greater cardiorespiratory fitness in their teens and 20s score better on cognitive tests in their mid-40s and 50s.
Those who were fitter in their early adulthood also scored better on tests designed to assess reaction speed and the mental agility needed to answer trick questions.
Obesity is associated with cognitive decline, in part because it increases levels of inflammatory chemicals known as cytokines in your body, which are strongly damaging to brain function.
According to a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, it appears your body may react to excess fat as an invader, causing levels of cytokines to stay elevated, thereby causing chronic inflammation.
Exercise is, of course, a key ingredient for weight loss. But it’s also a simple yet remarkably potent way to lower your levels of inflammatory cytokines, which will help protect your brain function.
And, while lack of sleep can lead to brain shrinkage, those who exercise the most tend to have the least amount of brain shrinkage over time. Not only that, but exercise actually causes your brain to grow in size. In one study, adults aged 60 to 80 who walked for 30 to 45 minutes, three days per week for one year, showed a two percent increase in the volume of their hippocampus—a brain region associated with memory. This is one of the reasons it might be a good idea to get a fitness tracker and making sure you walk about 10,000 steps a day.
Sugar Damages Brain Function
It’s impossible to discuss brain health without addressing the hazards of a high-sugar, low-fat processed food diet. In fact, a growing body of research suggests there’s a powerful connection between your diet and your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, via similar pathways that cause type 2 diabetes. According to some experts, such as Dr. Ron Rosedale, Alzheimer’s and other brain disorders may in large part be caused by the constant burning of glucose for fuel by your brain.
This may sound surprising, but contrary to popular belief, your brain does not require glucose. It actually functions better burning ketones, which your body makes in response to digesting healthy fats. Research22 has also shown that type 2 diabetics lose more brain volume with age than expected—particularly gray matter. But recent research23 shows that sugar and other carbohydrates can disrupt your brain function even if you’re not diabetic or have any signs of dementia.
After evaluating more than 140 healthy, non-diabetic, non-demented seniors, the researchers concluded that higher glucose levels were associated with worse memory, a smaller hippocampus, and compromised hippocampal structure. According to study co-author Agnes Flöel, the results “provide further evidence that glucose might directly contribute to hippocampal atrophy.”
So these findings suggest that even if you’re not diabetic or insulin resistant (and about 80 percent of Americans fall into the latter category), sugar consumption can still disrupt your memory. Additionally, when your liver is busy processing fructose, it severely hampers its ability to make cholesterol, an essential building block of your brain that is crucial for optimal brain function. Indeed, mounting evidence supports the notion that significantly reducing fructose consumption is a very important step for preventing Alzheimer’s disease.