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BackThe Brain and Aging

As we age our neurons slowly die. And like most other cells in the body, they are not as readily replaced. As a result, as early as our 30s, we begin to fill out forms, dial phone numbers more slowly and become more forgetful than younger people.

It is the highest call of anti-aging science to prevent this as much as possible. The brain is who we are and it is the highest possible priority in our defense against the gradual ravages of aging.

Use It or Lose It

The best way to protect your brain is to use it. Studies show that intellectual activity throughout life can reduce the rate of neuron loss. Recently it has been observed that although neurons to not divide as readily as the cells in other tissues, new neurons are born from stem cells lying deep in the hippocampus and that this is encouraged by different, stimulating experiences. In an experiment by genetics researchers Fred Gage and Henrette van Praag, from the Salk Institute of Biological Studies in San Diego, mice that moved from a sterile, uninteresting cage to a stimulating one (with an exercise wheel) approximately doubled the number of new dividing cells in the hippocampus.

As the resolution of brain scanning has improved, we have seen that as we learn new skills that this is accompanied by literal growth of dendrites and neurons in the corresponding area of the brain responsible for that skill.1

So continue to challenge and stimulate your mind and you will help to save yourself from age-related cognitive decline.

Vascular Health

It is not known to what degree the loss of blood flow to the brain resulting from an aging vascular system is responsible for age-related neuron loss. Some experts suspect that it could be one of, if not the, its primary cause.2 One recent study has shown that high HDL levels correlate with healthy cognitive function late into life, which seems to be inline with the idea of a vascular basis for the phenomenon. By following the recommendations in our About CardioVascular Health section you can help to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system and thereby protect your brain cells. Regular exercise helps to maintain a healthy vascular system and a healthy flow of blood to the brain as well.

Alcohol

At least one study has found a "significant negative linear relationship between alcohol consumption and total cerebral brain volume"3, suggesting that alcohol is slowly killing brain cells over the course of a lifetime. MRI images of the brains of alcoholics often show empty holes filled with fluid. So for optimal longevity, we recommend you drink either not at all, or in great moderation.

Telomeres

Neuron cells are not known to divide quite like the other somatic cells in the body, although new research has shown new neurons are born from neuronal stem cells during our adult life. Under the telomere theory, it has been speculated that neuron death associated with aging could be a result of the shortening telomeres (and resulting dysfunction) of the glial cells, which surround each neuron and support each neuron in many ways, and which do divide,4 as well as on an aging vascular system. It is interesting to note, however, that Progerics (victims of accelerated aging disease) do not seem to suffer from cognitive decline or neuron loss.


References:

1. London taxi drivers must "do the knowledge," learn the intricacies of the city's streets, to qualify to drive one of those big black cabs. Subsequent brain scans of drivers found that this demanding task was associated with enlargement of the hippocampus, a region associated with learning The adult brain apparently created the extra neuronal capacity to acquire and store all this new information.
Macquire, A. 1999. Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers

2. Miano and Zlokovic, 2006 Serum response factor and myocardin mediate arterial hypercontractility and cerebral blood flow dysregulation in Alzheimer's phenotype
See also:
Briendl, Annette Paper recasts Alzheimer's as cariovascular disorder Bioworld Today. Jan 25, 2007

3. Paul CA, Au R, Fredman L, Massaro JM, Seshadri S, DeCarli C, Wolf PA. Association of Alcohol Consumption With Brain Volume in the Framingham Study. Arch Neurol. 2008;65:1363-1367.

4. Schipper HM, Liang JJ, Wang E. 1993. Quiesent and cycling cell compartments in the senescent and Alzheimer-diseased human brain. Neurology 43: 87-94.