Your Aging Brain – Don’t Buy All the Bad News You Read! (First of a Series)

A universal fear, thanks to the growing incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease, is losing our minds as we age.

The thought of aging makes me want to dig through the latest Sky Mall magazine-catalog (they do have everything, don’t they?) for a time machine and keep it in the closet for when I need it. I enjoy being myself now, except for some knee discomfort when I run, but I really don’t want to be mentally or physically infirm later on. Here is the major dilemma of mid-life: if you don’t spend effort in preserving your capability you may lose it fairly rapidly, but if you spend too much time on it, you may not enjoy the life you have now.

Thursday afternoon I gave a presentation “Understanding the Aging Brain.” It was an invited address, one for which I needed to prepare. I added at lease 20 hours of research to my existing knowledge. Much of the research involved declines in function, such as memory and processing speed. Others involved pharmaceuticals, supplements, and exercise. The amount of information available is staggering, but it seems disjointed and centered around specific topics. I came to several conclusions: many of the studies that compare younger and older adults are inherently flawed. Readers should be very careful about drawing significant conclusions. More details please

Flaws in research (skip this paragraph if you don’t care)
Why are they flawed? As people age, their differences increase: any 25 (size of many research samples) 65 year-olds are likely more different than 25 2 year-olds, because at the age of 2 differences are due primarily to genetic make-up, the mother’s diet while in utero, and early nutrition, nurturing, and environment. As interaction with the environment changes the brain physically, the brain’s arrangement of neurons and cell signaling patterns becomes as unique as your fingerprint. Also, diet has a profound effect on the brain. DHA (one of the Omega-3 fatty acids) is required by the brain for effective signaling between cells. Protein is needed for many of the brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. These are just two examples.

Now, researchers will select “healthy adults” which is generally defined as not having any major illness, or able to walk, talk, stand, and sit. There are likely very large differences in brain function. This problem can be overcome by the use of appropriate statistical methods, and I won’t bore you with the details. Much of the “research” that makes to the popular media is not done properly. Bottom line: don’t assume you are headed for memory loss, senility, or that it will take you 5 minutes to read a billboard.You can maintain and even improve your functioning well into advanced age.

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