As people advance into their 60’s and 70’s, nearly everyone harbors concerns about the health of their brain. They have good reason to worry. The National Institutes of Health reports that 40-45% of people over 60 experience some form of memory impairment. As memory function falters, seniors worry if the deterioration of their mental function will be progressive.
Neuroscience research reveals that we have a lot to say about the state of our brain in the later decades of life. Here are a few headlines:
- Contrary to beliefs held for years, the brain is capable of neurogenesis – the birth of new neuron cells. There is however only one area of the brain where new cell formation has been proven – the hippocampus. This region of our brain plays a crucial role in memory formation and storage. Mature adults can stimulate the production of new neural cells in a region that plays a central role in memory function.
- John Ratey, M.D. of Harvard Medical School calls BDNF, a brain protein, ‘Miracle Gro’ for the brain. We can generate accelerated levels of BDNF to create a rich biochemical environment for our brain.
- White matter tissue makes up about half of our brain volume. White matter is composed of brain wiring or axons – the transmission lines of our neural cells. Axons are insulated by a fatty substance called myelin, just like electrical wires are coated with a plastic sheath. The myelin facilitates transmission of the nerve signal to other neurons. Each of us has the capacity to keep the integrity of our white matter tissue in good shape which speeds communication between different regions of our brain and enhances mental acuity.
- We all have the capability of generating a specific type of protein in our brain that facilitates communication at our brain’s synapses – the connection between one neuron and other neurons. The human brain has about 86 billion neural cells. Each cell has the potential to make thousands of connections with other neurons. Do the math. These neural circuits represent the wiring necessary for learning. At the juncture of each neural connection synapses are the contact point between one neuron and others.
Every person reading this article can optimize each of the components above that constitute how our brain functions. How? Regular physical exercise. Neuroscience researchers churn out study after study concluding that regular physical activity is critically important for optimal brain function. However, The Center for Disease Control reports that 60% of the population does not meet recommended standards for physical activity and that 25% of the population is completely sedentary.
The choice is yours! Your brain, your memory and your overall cognitive function await your decision. You can maintain the mental acuity of younger adults by getting out for a brisk walk several times a week. We recommend that you try to find some high-quality shoes to improve your chances of success. Start your activity routine with very modest goals to establish an initial track record of success. For people who need structure to sustain their activity habit, find a fitness center. Identify friends who are physically active and suggest an outing. It’s your brain. It deserves your best care and support.
Richard Houston holds a Doctorate in Education and was licensed by the Massachusetts Board of Psychology. He is a graduate of Brown University. He has conducted research on the psychological dimensions of healthy lifestyle behaviors and has had long term consulting relationships with several continuing care retirement communities. You can visit his website at Resilience-Advocate.com.