Saturday, 20 September 2014

Old age and Brain power

As one gets older, one is haunted by some vague fears.  One is fear of death.  More than death, one fears the suffering before death either physically where one is not able to attend to one’s basic functions without assistance or mentally where one does not remember about oneself, let alone others.  This fear gets accentuated when physical organs start non-cooperation with one and the memory plays tricks with him.  Let us look into the memory aspect.  As we grow older we keep forgetting names, dates, incidents and also cannot recollect where we placed things like keys, mobile phone etc.  Forgetting wife’s birthday can be absent-mindedness, but forgetting wife’s name itself is not. As one gets older, reaction time becomes longer and also the time to retrieve information from one’s memory.  Sometime we suffer from the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon when the word is almost there but we cannot articulate it. The reason for this memory lapse is attributed to steady loss of brain power in critical areas such as the hippo campus- the area where memory is processed.

But the brain power can be retained and even improved upon even as one gets older, says Dr, Peiris, a neuro-scientist in an article in Tattvaloka.  Since he has some positive things to say on aging and brain power, let me share the positive ideas through this blog.  Some brain functions improve with age, it is said.  As we age, we more easily get the gist of arguments.  Even our judgement of others improves.  We also get better at knowing what to ignore and when to hold our tongue. More than all these, there is no loss of neuroplasticity due to old age.

Neuroplasticity is derived from two words Neuron and Plastic.  Neuron refers to a nerve cell in our brain. Each individual cell is linked to another by a small space called the synapse. Neuroplasticity refers to the power of brain to create neural pathways to meet new needs. In short the ability of the brain to change in face of new challenges is called neuroplasticity.  It had been earlier held that the brain which has around 86 billion cells cannot regenerate new cells  but it is known now that this is not true in respect of certain areas of the brain and that there is cell growth in brain throughout life. So the age related cognital decline is not due to neuronal death but due to synaptic alterations.. Further the earlier notion that after age forty no new neural pathways are created is now discredited. It is now discovered that new neural cells and new neural pathways are created throughout life.  In fact certain areas of the brain increase in size with usage. So the brain can continue to learn in old age; in fact the brain never stops changing through learning throughout life.  So whatever be the age we can try to lead a brain-healthy life, even viewing the changes in fast thinking area of the brain to our advantage as it helps to avoid impulsive actions and quick judgement of people. To maintain the brain power in one’s old age, one can take the following steps as suggested in the above article and in various others. 

 1) Physical activity
Regular physical exercise aids better brain function and reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Exercise gives the brain a healthy boost.  Physical exercise increases blood flow to the brain, stimulates the growth of brain cells and the connections between them, and is associated with larger brain volume.  This is more so in the case of persons with high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol, as these are associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia.  A combination of stretch and muscle building exercises of moderate intensity and outdoor-walking exposed to sunlight for a minimum of 300 minutes or five hours a week is recommended. Movement of the body in a variety of ways challenges the brain to learn new muscle skills, estimate distance and practice balance.

  2)   Healthy diet
Studies have revealed that a high intake of saturated fats, such as those found in meat, deep fried foods and takeaway food and trans fats often found in pies, pastries, cakes, biscuits and buns are associated with an increased risk of dementia. A higher intake of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats or 'good fats', such as those found in fish oil and olive oil, is associated with a reduced risk of dementia. Foods that are high in antioxidants such as tomatoes, kidney beans, pecan nuts, cranberries, blueberries and oranges also seem to be good for brain health.  So having a diet regime with an emphasis on beneficial foods, and avoidance of high risk foods is helpful in maintaining brain health until the last days.  As heart health is very much connected with brain health, any food affecting the heart health must be avoided.

   3) Regular challenge to brain 
This is very important as ‘use it or lose it’ is very much true of the brain.  Scientists have found that challenging the brain with new activities helps to build new brain cells and strengthen connections between them. There are many ways in which this can be done.  We shall see a few of them. One is to change our routine activity in an unexpected nontrivial way like changing the walking route, using the left hand to open a door or brush your teeth. Another popular one is doing crosswords, sudoku or doing puzzles that involve logic, word skills, maths and more.  Learning a new skill like painting, cookery, dancing, learning a new language, engaging in creative activity, updating existing skills, cultivating a new hobby; all these engage multiple areas of the brain. 

  4) Meditation, prayer and positive thinking  
Meditation not only relaxes the mind but gives the brain also a workout.  The creation of a new mental state engages the brain in new interesting ways besides increasing the brain fitness.  Positive thinking involves not lamenting that you are getting old and keep forgetting things, when you do not remember or recall or when there is a memory lapse.  Accept it and take necessary corrective steps for future like committing things to paper, repeating a few times mentally things you want to remember and checking it after few minutes to fix it firmly.  Regularly trying to memorize a passage and recalling it later also helps.  Focussed prayer, with a feeling of surrender to the Supreme, gives one a sense of peace that prevents depression and anxiety which in turn helps brain health. Neurological studies have shown that there is increased activity in the front lobe of the brain of believers to whom prayer is a platform to communicate with God.

  5) Social activity 
Man being a social animal, prefers the company of others rather than existing in isolation.  To help look after your brain health it's important to be social with people whose company you enjoy and in ways that interest you. It is mentally stimulating and may contribute to building brain reserve which then contributes to a lower dementia risk.  Participation in satsang with prayerful attitude, learning works of prayers like Narayaneeyam and Tiruppugazh, group yoga and group exercise combine social activity with other beneficial activities. 

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