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The aging brain is a hot topic in the world of brain science and research, especially as the Baby Boomers age. (10,000 U.S. adults turn 65 every day!) Boomers are caring for elderly parents, working longer years, and staying healthier, active and more vibrant.
Understanding the brain and how to maintain quality cognitive capacity is critical – not only to this generation – but the generations that follow.
Good news: there is technology that allows us to understand the brain in unprecedented ways. This is an exciting era in brain research science, with new discoveries and breakthroughs providing actionable data.
Some of the most recent “aha” moments include:
Getting a good night’s sleep has long been understood as critical for the body and brain’s optimal function. We all know when we don’t sleep well we are grumpier, more short-tempered, less focused and forgetful. Scientists have understood for years a correlation between deep, restorative sleep and Alzheimer’s disease. What they haven’t understood until recently is why.
There’s a vicious cycle: people who don’t sleep well have higher risks for Alzheimer’s; people with Alzheimer’s don’t sleep well. Chicken or the egg? Are people at higher risks because they don’t sleep well or do they not sleep well because of a predisposition to Alzheimer’s?
A recent collaborative study out of Boston showed that when people are in a state of deep sleep (non-rapid eye movement) there is a literal brain washing that occurs. Slow electrical waves trigger a wave of cerebral fluid that enters the brain and “washes” it, carrying away toxins and other waste products. Study author Laura D. Lewis suggests the slow waves trigger a wash cycle, much like a very slowly oscillating washing machine.
It stands to reason, if you’re not getting a good flushing of these toxins, you may increase the risk of cognitive disease. The question is: will the treatment of sleep disruptions reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia?
Similar to sleep, exercise is a well-known factor in overall health and wellness, in particular, to brain and memory health. A recent analytical study in Norway tracked over 30,000 participants around the area of Trondheim, which conducted large-scale health and medical testing over 30 years. (Two tests were conducted ten years apart. Then a follow-up period was examined via records at nursing homes twenty years later to determine if fitness played a role among participants who developed dementia.)
Senior author of the study, Ulrik Wisloff, stated that, while they did expect fitness to have a causal relationship to developing dementia, “the effect was larger than we thought.” That effect was huge! The participants that were fit throughout the initial 10-year study proved 50% less likely to be suffering from dementia during the twenty-year follow-up than the participants who were deemed out of shape.
Perhaps the most encouraging take-away from this particular study was that participants who were out of shape at midlife, then gained in fitness, also significantly reduced their risks of developing dementia.
Great. But what kind of fitness lowers that risk?
I was hoping you would ask! A second recent study addresses that very question. Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, recruited 64 sedentary men and women, ages 60 or more, and divided them into three groups.
A control group was given stretching exercises only.
One exercise group walked on a treadmill, three times a week, 50 minutes a session.
The other exercise group walked on a treadmill at a high incline for four minutes, followed by three minutes of easy walking. This interval training was repeated three more rounds.
After 12 weeks, the same memory and cognitive tests (designed to mimic difficulties with age-related cognitive decline) were repeated. Researchers found only the group that did interval training showed substantial gains in both their physical and mental fitness.
The takeaway? The more fit your body, the more fit your mind. And it’s never too late to start!
Advancements in DNA research have led to identifying genetic markers to indicate a predisposition to conditions, such as Alzheimer’s. Even more incredible, seemingly minor genome mutations can make a huge difference.
A woman in Columbia was identified as destined to develop Alzheimer’s. In her 70s and without any indication of cognitive decline, she went to Boston to undergo further testing. Her brain showed high levels of amyloid, a protein indicative of Alzheimer’s. But she was symptom-free.
A very rare gene mutation was seemingly protecting her by preventing a protein from binding with certain sugars, inhibiting symptoms. And while a drug inhibiting this process could battle or prevent the disease in people with these predispositions, it is likely a long way off.
Still, information is power! And discovering mutations such as this are exciting steps in developing new medications.
New discoveries about the human genome, how exercise affects the brain, and why sleep matters are groundbreaking discoveries. These scientific advancements and studies on the brain are exciting. And what’s more, one discovery leads to another. One question and one answer can lead to the development of new technologies, new breakthroughs, new treatments. Keep checking the BIPRI Brain Power Blog for more exciting advancements.
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