Converging Information on Brain Function, Aging and Health
One reason we are just beginning to learn effective ways to grow brains throughout life is that information from the scientific community has changed dramatically over the last decade. The news is all exciting, and as we begin to do the things that make a difference, we will have more brain power to digest the developing information.
Jeff Victoroff, M.D., associate professor of clinical neurology at the Keck School and director of neurobehavior at Rancho Los Amigos, suggests, "Genetic evolution may have favored those who, once they hit the old age of 35, retained the capacity to teach and provide emotional support rather than those whose brains' limited resources were devoted to new learning." In evolution 100,000 years ago, he says, "It was probably rare for people to live past age 40 or 50, which means there was very little evolutionary selective pressure to make the brain work when we're 60 or 70 or 80. That's probably why all brains decline with aging."
What is most intriguing about the new findings in brain aging is that they indicate that the rate of change may be hastened or slowed by lifestyle factors. For instance, maintaining a lower weight might affect brain aging.
Steps like strict control of blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol, diet, the use of certain vitamins, physical exercise and mental exercise to help keep the brain functioning at its peak. "These are probably things 15 year olds should be doing, because the effect on the brain is cumulative," he says. "It certainly helps if someone in their 40s, 50s or even 70s starts to take the right steps, but the younger you are, the larger an impact it will have on delaying brain aging."
Victoroff and others are optimistic that the future will bring better understanding-and treatment-of brain aging and its associated symptoms. Drugs now in preclinical or Phase I human trials to treat Alzheimer's, says Helena Chui, M.D., co-director of McCarron Clinical Research and Education Center at USC in Downey, California, may decrease the levels of amyloids in the brain. Other experiments now underway suggest that deterioration in critical brain networks may be restored by gene therapy-transplanting brain cells genetically programmed to release a protein called nerve growth factor. The research focuses on a particular set of brain cells deep in the brain known as cholinergic neurons, which are shown to deteriorate rapidly in those with Alzheimer's disease.
"Studies show that the human brain is built to go for an amazing length of time," says Caleb Finch, Professor of gerontology and biological sciences. Ten years from now, "we'll have a greater understanding of the long-term risk factors that have adverse effects on the brain. We'll know which people are more at risk earlier in their lives because of their genes. Knowing more about genes and the environment is not likely to yield a magic bullet, but each decade will nibble away at the adverse aspects of brain aging."
Adds Victoroff, "Although we need to know a great deal more, we are long overdue in recognizing a simple fact: Cognitive loss is largely preventable. This is a watershed point in our understanding of dementia. Once the news gets out, it will percolate into the public's consciousness and begin to influence behavior."
Influencing public behavior is where Brain Whisperers come in. Those of us working to bring this information to an ever-broader audience are excited about increasing the potential and possibilities available to the millions of aging Baby Boomers, their elderly parents and their bright kids and grandkids.
To your health,