Almost everyone experiences some decline in memory and reaction time after age 40. But a rich network of neural connections links between brain cells that allow them to communicate can help compensate for these losses.
A rich neural network may even help keep people from being incapacitated by Alzheimer’s disease.
Extensive neural connections seem to act as a kind of cognitive reserve allowing a person to function longer with the disease than someone whose mental resources were less extensive.
Good news: Brain cells can form new connections at any age. I’m 55 years old, and Eve decided to take steps now to preserve mental function later.
Develop a consuming passion
When your brain is involved in a wide range of activities, more neural circuits are created and maintained.
Helpful: Cultivating an interest in something totally different from your customary pursuits. A lawyer might take up bridge or an accountant might learn to play the clarinet.
It’s also a good idea to take classes in unfamiliar subjects. Studies have shown that higher education early in life helps ensure proper brain functioning in old age. It seems likely that intellectual activity later in life builds cognitive reserves as well.
Get regular exercise
Every day, I walk a few miles at a moderate pace. In addition to keeping the heart and lungs healthy, exercise boosts blood flow to the brain, fueling it with oxygen and glucose. Another excellent form of exercise is the gentle Chinese martial art tai chi.
Cellular damage caused by free radicals renegade molecules formed in the body as a byproduct of normal metabolism is thought to be a major cause of age-related mental decline.
To neutralize free radicals, I make sure to get enough of the antioxidant vitamins A, C and E. I eat lots of fruits and vegetables and take a supplement containing 10,000 international units (IU) of beta-carotene (the precursor of vitamin A) 1,000 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C and 400 IU of vitamin E (in the form dalpha tocopherol, which has the highest “bio potency”).
Since we tend to become deficient in zinc as we age, I also take a pill containing about 20 mg of this mineral every day. Zinc plays a key role in preserving the sense of smell.
• Anti-inflammatory drugs
The Baltimore Longitudinal Study also found preliminary evidence that taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen might be protective against Alzheimer’s.
Caution: Since NSAIDs can cause stomach trouble, they should be taken under a doctor’s supervision.
Studies suggest that this hormone improves memory. But it increases men’s risk for prostate cancer. We don’t know if it poses any danger to women. More research is needed.
A stroke occurs when a blood clot or ruptured artery cuts off blood flow to the brain. New research links stroke-induced brain damage with Alzheimer’s.
To minimize your risk
Exercise regularly, eat a healthful diet, avoid smoking and keep your blood pressure under control.
If a stroke does occur, new drugs can help arrest the damage. They must be administered within hours, however, so seek medical attention immediately at the first sign of stroke.
The signs of stroke include numbness on one side of the body…difficulty speaking or understanding speech, sudden headache, dizziness or loss of balance and blurred or decreased vision.
Chronic psychological stress causes the body to make excess cortisol. Over time, high levels of this adrenal hormone can cause deterioration of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a critical role in memory.
We can’t always control events, but we can control our response to these events. One strategy I use is to reframe frustrations as challenges. I ask myself, “What’s the best course of action to follow at this time?” I also use words that have a calming rather than tension-producing effect for example, concern rather than worry.
Maintain finger dexterity
French researchers found recently that older women who knit retain normal mental function longer than their non-knitting counterparts.
Make practical adaptations
Memory aids from making lists to carrying a palmtop computer are great for helping off set age-related memory loss. But do not become so dependent on these helpers that you allow your own natural abilities to atrophy.