This Is Your Brain on Age

Food for thought: 10 new things to know now about the health and longevity of your mind

ZOOMER Magazine - - ZOOM IN SCIENCE - By Lisa Ben­dall

LIKE SO MANY OTHER parts of our bod­ies that are sag­ging and wrin­kling, our brains are chang­ing in size, struc­ture and func­tion as we age. But they don’t all fol­low the same course. Here, we look at what sci­en­tists are dis­cov­er­ing now about what hap­pens to our brain in later life and which strate­gies, if any, can in­flu­ence the tra­jec­tory.

Snooze to safe­guard your brain There’s grow­ing ev­i­dence that a good night’s sleep is crit­i­cal to fight­ing de­men­tia. Older peo­ple who don’t sleep long or soundly enough tend to have poorer cog­ni­tive func­tion over time. (Makes sense, right? Af­ter all, a foggy-brained par­ent in their 20s will tell you the same thing.) Brain scans per­formed at the Uni­ver­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son sug­gest that when older peo­ple don’t sleep well, their brains don’t have a chance to clean them­selves of the pro­tein frag­ments that even­tu­ally form the hall­mark plaques of Alzheimer’s dis­ease.

Per­fect prac­tice makes per­fect In 2016, Lu­mos Labs, the com­pany be­hind Lu­mi­nos­ity brain­train­ing games, agreed to pay $2 mil­lion in dam­ages caused by false ad­ver­tis­ing. But it doesn’t mean train­ing doesn’t work. The Uni­ver­sity of Texas Cen­ter for BrainHealth has de­vel­oped a pro­gram proven to slow age-re­lated cog­ni­tive de­cline. Dubbed Strate­gic Mem­ory Ad­vanced Rea­son­ing Train­ing (SMART), it’s backed by ev­i­dence pub­lished in Neu­ro­bi­ol­ogy of Ag­ing. (By the way, there’s also an app for that.)

A mind in the gut­ter A 2017 study in The

Jour­nals of Geron­tol­ogy con­firms pre­vi­ous re­search that sexy times in old age is linked to bet­ter brain power. Sex­u­ally ac­tive older adults, say U.K. psy­chol­o­gists be­hind the study, per­form bet­ter on cog­ni­tive tests. Per­haps it’s thanks to the so­cial con­nec­tions, men­tal fo­cus or phys­i­cal ex­er­cise that can be part and par­cel of a sat­is­fy­ing roll in the hay. Un­for­tu­nately, newer re­sults based on the English Lon­gi­tu­di­nal Study of Ag­ing (ELSA) sug­gest the link is short­term. So … en­joy it while it lasts?

Bilin­gual brains have an edge in old age A bio­med­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Univer­sité de Mon­tréal has found dif­fer­ences in the brain func­tion of older peo­ple who speak more than one lan­guage. When these folks per­formed a com­plex task that in­volved screen­ing out dis­tract­ing in­for­ma­tion, their brain used fewer and more spe­cial­ized re­gions, com­pared to unilin­gual peo­ple the same age. Thanks to decades of train­ing, bilin­gual se­niors are ac­cus­tomed to ze­ro­ing in on rel­e­vant de­tails while ig­nor­ing unim­por­tant stuff. The re­searchers say this ef­fi­ciency can help brain power in later life.

Singing the praises of mu­sic A neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of Helsinki has de­voted years of re­search to es­tab­lish­ing the pos­i­tive ef­fects of mu­sic on stroke sur­vivors and peo­ple in the early stages of de­men­tia. Not only does singing and lis­ten­ing to mu­sic lift mood, it ap­pears to im­prove mem­ory and other cog­ni­tive skills. If mu­sic be the food of brains …

A tall drink of wa­ter We’ve long known ex­er­cise nour­ishes the brain. It im­proves cir­cu­la­tion, low­ers in­flam­ma­tion and helps con­trol stress. Now we’ve learned to make the most of your work­out, you need wa­ter. Be­cause older adults’ thirst sig­nals are less ac­tive, they may not hy­drate enough. A re­cent Bos­ton study looked at the ef­fects of ex­er­cise on the think­ing skills of older cy­clists. Af­ter a bout of phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, those who were prop­erly hy­drated per­formed much bet­ter on cog­ni­tive tests than those who were de­hy­drated. So drink up!

Lymph to the fin­ish line In 2015, re­search at the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia’s Cen­ter for Brain Im­munol­ogy and Glia proved that our brains are sur­rounded by lym­phatic ves­sels. Sci­en­tists have since shown just how vi­tal those ves­sels are to the health of ag­ing brains. If they block the lym­phatic ves­sels in mice, it re­sults in faster buildup of amy­loid plaques. If they use a com­pound to widen the ves­sels, it al­lows more ef­fec­tive waste drainage and the mice per­form bet­ter at mem­ory tasks and learn­ing. Now un­der­way: cre­at­ing a drug for hu­mans.

A new drug to halt de­men­tia? We don’t yet have a med­i­ca­tion that can cure Alzheimer’s, only a hand­ful that tem­po­rar­ily re­lieve symp­toms. At this year’s Alzheimer’s As­so­ci­a­tion In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence, how­ever, an Amer­i­can biotech firm and a Toyko-based phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pany pre­sented their new drug, BAN2401, which may help pre­vent amy­loid brain plaques in Alzheimer’s pa­tients. In a trial, peo­ple who got the high­est dose of BAN2401 had re­duced plaque buildup and fewer cog­ni­tive ef­fects com­pared to those on a placebo.

Fix­ing the mighty mi­to­chon­dria Cells – in­clud­ing those in our brain – con­tain mi­to­chon­dria, which are re­spon­si­ble for re­cy­cling waste, con­vert­ing food en­ergy and pro­duc­ing chem­i­cals we need to func­tion. With age, mi­to­chon­dria are slowly dam­aged, and that ac­cu­mu­la­tion is blamed for age-re­lated de­cline. But a new process, de­scribed last year in

Na­ture Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, breaks up dam­aged mi­to­chon­dria so they can be more eas­ily elim­i­nated. Thus far it’s been used only on fruit flies, but did in­crease the bugs’ ac­tiv­ity level (and life­span by up to 20 per cent!).

Young at heart – and brain For the first time, there’s ev­i­dence that peo­ple who feel young re­ally are ag­ing more slowly – in their minds, at least. A neu­ro­sci­en­tist at Seoul Na­tional Uni­ver­sity, us­ing MRI scan­ning in 59- to 84-year-olds, found that those who re­ported feel­ing younger than their age had younger-look­ing brains, with more grey mat­ter in cer­tain ar­eas. They also fared bet­ter on mem­ory tests. If you feel older than your age, it could be a wake-up call to do more for your brain health.

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