The aging brain is unpredictable. Some people are cognitively sharp and productive well into their nineties. Others become afflicted with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Not many people realize that the brain can compensate for some of its decline. Consumer Reports On-Health asserts in its cover article for July that the brain has the potential to build up a “mental reserve.”
Dr. Paul Nussbaum from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine cites the example of autopsies of brains riddled with the distinctive Alzheimer’s plaques and tangles did not manifest any evidence of the disease in the patients when they were alive. This is possible, Nussbaum explains, because of cognitive reserve, extra brain structures and networks created during a lifetime of learning and growing.
I have read the same studies which he cites, specifically research which traced women who wrote complex essays during their college and graduate school years, yet when they aged, never evinced Alzheimer’s symptoms while their brains clearly showed signs that they had been damaged by the disease. Also, there was a well-known study of nuns’ brains which when autopsied, had significant signs of Alzheimer’s disease, yet never had any symptoms. These nuns were the creative and innovative ones in the convent – the ones who didn’t dot their i’s or cross their t’s.
Therefore it’s not too late if you are worried about getting Alzheimer’s because of the aging process, or due to a genetic link in your family:
- Keep learning – be proactive in this. Challenge yourself. Novelty wakes up the brain.
- Delay retirement leading to a passive lifestyle. When you do retire, find a hobby, become a mentor, or volunteer in some capacity where you participate in meaningful work.
- Exercise to shed stress and create new neurons in the brain. Keep changing up your exercise routine to reap the benefits. Exercise keeps your blood vessels healthier which improves blood flow to the brain.
- Research still praises a Mediterranean diet as heart smart and brain smart. A little red wine is protective as well.
- Reduce your stress. Stress plays havoc with memory, interferes with sleep which repairs all bodily processes.
- Don’t become a hermit. Your friends lift you up. In-depth conversations stimulate the brain. So, don’t waste time on shallow acquaintances with small talk; connect with true friends.
For more information on caregiving read my book, Changing Habits: The Caregivers' Total Workout. To listen to archived radio shows with guest experts visit Turn On Your Inner Light Radio Show