In my Tidings article of Jan. 4, I related how shocking and sad it was when my mother forgot who I was. Her dementia slowly increased for years and as we celebrate Mother's Day, I wish she could have utilized some of the preventive measures that we know today about the aging brain. Much of what we take for granted about brain aging is a myth. Let's look at four well-researched and verified myths of brain aging.
Myth No. 1: Brain deterioration is inevitable as we age.
New research indicates that healthy brains can continue functioning effectively until the end of life. Healthy is the operative word here. Researchers found that when those who eventually got dementia, including Alzheimer's, were excluded from the data, those brain function curves pointing down with age leveled out. In other words, healthy people maintained healthy brain function. In fact, researchers learned that our crystallized intelligence — how well we reuse previously learned information and skills — can actually improve with age. Fluid intelligence — how well we learn and adapt in new situations — can also be increased with the right brain stimulation and training. For instance, certain computer games have been shown to improve brain function in real-life situations. This is very promising and leads to the second myth, which is a corollary of the first.
Myth No. 2: We are helpless to prevent brain deterioration.
We now know that a healthy diet, combined with high levels of physical, mental, and social activity, will unleash your brain's potential. There are additional tools for building a better brain. You have the power to significantly reduce your risk of Alzheimer's and other brain diseases. The brain is now considered to be a very adaptable organ and has an ability to compensate for losses. With neuroplasticity, our moment-by-moment experience constantly wires and rewires our brain. We can direct this process through our intention, attention, and attitude — how we choose to live and how well we take care of ourselves. The key is to play an active role in our own brain health.
Myth No. 3: The incidence of Alzheimer's and dementia is relentlessly increasing.
As reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, brain deterioration has been decreasing among baby boomers. This is not the result of exotic brain surgery or a magic pill. It has been attributed to healthier lifestyles, increases in lifelong learning, and the prevention of heart disease. This is great news because these strategies are well within reach of most of us.
Myth No. 4: Any physical deterioration in brain structure automatically equals deterioration in brain function.
Another encouraging observation has been made. Apparently a significant number of highly functioning older people were found to have advanced Alzheimer's type deterioration in their brains. But it didn't seem to affect them. What may explain this is something called cognitive reserve. The more early education we have and the more we have continued learning throughout our lives, the better we can adapt to the aging process.
I hope you find this inspiring. Research is confirming that we are not helpless victims in the face of brain aging. Starting with the basic brain builders of physical, mental and social activity and a healthy diet, we can protect our brains and enhance our lives for many years. They say you are as young as you feel. Perhaps we can add: you are as young as you think.
John Kalb is a chiropractic physician, wellness coach, educator, and author. Kalb has run a chiropractic practice in Ashland for almost 30 years. His focus is interesting his patients in prevention, wellness, and longevity.
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