Conserving the grey matter

Consumer Concerns By Eileen Cox
Stabroek News
August 6, 2000

Consumer reports for August 2000 is chock-full of articles that would appeal to consumers worldwide. One of the most interesting articles deals with aging and is entitled "Age-proofing your brain". It is to be found in the Health section of the magazine. It would be presumptuous of me to seek to condense any section of this article. Therefore, I shall quote four sections in their entirety. Here goes:

"I grew up being told that every day people lost 100,000 brain cells," says Lawrence Katz, PhD., professor of neurobiology at the Duke University Medical Centre. The prevailing view was that the adult brain couldn't manufacture new cells to replace those that naturally died off over time.

"Neurologists also doubted that adult brain cells could sprout new dendrites - the neural "wiring" that transmits information among the cells and forms the basis of learning and memory. According to that view, the brain could tolerate some losses of circuitry without incurring any noticeable decline in function, since it had billions of cells and thousands of neural connections attached to each cell. But over time, those structural losses mounted up, leading to the mental lapses linked with advancing age.

"That the view of the brain led researchers to expect a "general mental decline with age across all kinds of functions," says Laura Carstensen, PhD., chair of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Future Directions for Cognitive Research on Aging. "We thought everything went." nd scientists assumed that nothing would help stave off the supposedly inevitable decline.

"However, a growing body of research has revolutionized the way neurologists perceive the adult brain - no longer as a cerebral clock that winds down over time but as a dynamic organ that responds to new information and experiences by generating additional circuitry. Experts now say that the adult brain, far from being doomed to wither, appears able to grow, adapt, and in some ways improve with age.

"It's true that certain cognitive skills do decline as people get older. But those declines are typically mild and normally don't interfere with leading a productive life. And, until very late in life, older people tend to perform better than younger ones in certain areas, such as vocabulary, numerical skills, spatial orientation, and interpersonal problem solving as well as other tasks that require complex judgment, experience, maturity or wisdom.

"Moreover, recent research has raised the prospect of minimizing cognitive decline by stimulating, fueling and protecting the brain as it ages. For one thing, studies suggest that staying mentally active, particularly in ways that target the functions most likely to decline, may help keep the mind sharp. Stoking the brain with oxygen-rich blood, by staying physically active, may provide complementary benefits. Equally important, some evidence suggests that older people who remain free of the diseases and habits that damage the brain - not only Alzheimer's but also hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol levels, smoking and excessive drinking - may experience far less mental decline than other people do. Finally, certain drugs and supplements show promise for slowing down the graying of the gray matter.

"In short, it now appears that the brain's long-term health hinges very much on how well you take care of it. For optimal care, take a four-pronged approach. Exercise your mind, get regular physical activity, keep your body healthy, and possibly take the substances that may be good for your brain."

On August 6, I reported the first of four articles on this topic. The articles are taken from the Health section of Consumer Reports, August 2000. This section needs careful reading. Cut it out - in fact cut all out and keep them so that you may understand how the brain ticks. We may also begin to sympathise with those whose brains do not function as they should. Note, in particular, the need for the brain to be supplied with oxygen-rich blood. Here goes:

Multiple intelligences "Thinking actually consists of an array of discrete abilities that include planning, organising, remembering, reasoning, spatial orientation, responding quickly, absorbing new information, and making complex judgements based on life experience.

The functions that tend to decline most markedly with age are the processing of new information, such as instructions for programming a new VCR, mentally juggling several tasks at once, such as driving a car in an unfamiliar neighbourhood while talking on a cell phone; and remembering recent information, But, with minor adaptations, people can compensate for those minor lapses. For example, you could allot more time to programming the VCR (it's the speed of learning, not the capacity itself, that declines). Carrying shopping lists, an appointment calendar, and a telephone book, can relieve the need to memorise items. And certain precautions, like not using the cell phone until you've parked the car - which is an important safety measure for everyone - can compensate for multi-tasking problems..."

The article continues in a more technical manner:

The cardiovascular connection "Although it makes up only about 2 per cent of your total body weight, the brain consumes roughly 20 per cent of the oxygen you breathe. Since the brain depends on the cardiovascular system to supply it with oxygen-rich blood, anything that threatens the heart, lungs, or blood vessels also threatens the brain's health and normal function. Indeed, studies suggest that much of the decline in cognitive power results from a decreased supply of oxygen to the brain.

"The possibility of a brain benefit adds another strong incentive to take the many measures that can protect or improve your cardiovascular system. Regular exercise not only boosts blood flow to the brain but also helps control blood sugar, raises the level of 'good' HDL cholesterol and strengthens the entire cardiovascular system. Moreover, exercise helps keep your blood pressure down - a particularly important benefit, because elevated pressure can wear down the blood vessels feeding the brain and also increase the risk of tiny, unnoticed strokes that can contribute to cognitive decline.

"Observational studies suggest that people with hypertension tend to perform more poorly on tests of learning, memory and other mental functions. In one recent study that tracked the blood pressure and cognitive status of over 1,000 older people, more than 20 per cent of those with untreated hypertension developed substantial cognitive decline after four years compared with only 7 per cent of those with normal blood pressure or with well-treated hypertension.

"Other potentially helpful steps include:

Eating a low fat diet high fruit, vegetables, grains and beans

Stopping smoking

Avoiding excess alcohol consumption

Seeing your doctor regularly to have hypertension, unfavourable cholesterol levels, and other cardiovascular risk factors detected and treated as early as possible.

Trying to curb excessive stress in your life. Moderate, transitory stress can help you think more clearly. But excess stress tends to raise blood pressure and also releases a chemical called cortisol which can damage the brain cells themselves."

You may think that you now know as much as you care to know about conserving the grey matter, but this article today will give information on diet. Attention to our diet may not only lead us to a good old age but may prevent some of the diseases to which the elderly are prone. Here goes:

B vitamins: Recent studies suggest that even moderate deficiencies of vitamin B12, B6, or folic acid may raise the risk of mental decline, dementia, heart disease and stroke.

Eating a varied diet containing plenty of whole grains, beans, and produce can help boost your intake of B6 and folic acid; in addition, refined grain products are now fortified with foliate. But the National Academy of Sciences recommends that everyone over age 50 consume extra B12 since many older people secrete too little stomach acid to extract B12 from foods. You could either consume foods fortified with B12 or take a daily supplement containing 3 to 6 micrograms of the vitamin.

Vitamin E: Laboratory and animal studies suggest that antioxidants, notably vitamin E, may help prevent oxidative damage to brain cells and even improve memory. Several though not all, observational studies have found that people with the lowest intake or blood level of vitamin E have the poorest memory. And a two-year clinical trial of about 350 Alzheimer's patients found that high doses of the vitamin delayed the progression of the disease by a modest average of seven months.

In addition, many studies suggest that vitamin E may help protect against cardiovascular disease (although two recent well-controlled clinical trials have dampened the case for that benefit). Still, people who'd like to get the possible heart and brain benefits of the vitamin may want to consider taking a daily pill, preferably containing 200 to 400 international units (IU), since it's hard to get substantial amounts from a lean diet. However, people taking blood-thinning drugs like warfarin (Coumadin) and possibly aspirin should avoid vitamin E pills.

Oestrogen: A review of 16 clinical trials, published last year, concluded that oestrogen therapy clearly helps preserve the ability to remember verbal material and may help prevent or at least delay age-related declines in overall memory. Some, though not all, studies have also linked oestrogen therapy with a reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease. So, if you're a postmenopausal woman considering the therapy for its bone and probable heart benefits, the possible memory boost may provide a further incentive for taking the hormone.

Caffeine and sleep: In addition to those possible long-term protectors, caffeine - found primarily in coffee, tea, some soft drinks, and chocolate - apparently does warrant its reputation for providing a quick mental lift. Studies have shown that the caffeine in as little as a third of a cup of brewed coffee helps people maintain mental focus during monotonous tasks. And in a recent clinical trial, college-age volunteers who drank caffeinated coffee beforehand fought off fatigue and absorbed new information better than those who drank decaf.

However, amounts of caffeine that make you jittery are likely to impede concentration and memory. Moreover, relying on caffeine as a substitute for sleep when you're trying to learn something new may be self-defeating since "sleep on it" may help the message sink in. Brain studies show that certain chemical and physical signs of absorbing new information increase during deep sleep after rats are exposed to an enriched environment. More significant studies indicate that people learn new material better if they have either had a good night's sleep or a long nap after the mental workout.

Now for the final instalment from the article 'Age-proofing your brain' in the health section of Consumer Reports, August 2000.

Taking the many steps that can help your cardiovascular system stay strong - particularly exercising regularly, controlling your blood pressure, and not smoking - theoretically should help keep the mind supple. But mental exercise may help you preserve overall mental acuity and let you target particular weak spots. Here are some options that may boost specific cognitive skills.

Learn a language, take part in a book discussion group, listen to audio books, keep a diary, solve crossword puzzles, or tutor in a literary programme.

Executive skills (planning, organizing, staying flexible) Plan a garden, organize a fundraiser or design your own website.

Learning and memory: Memorize favourite poems, participate in a community theatre group, learn to identify the birds in your area, or take up ballroom dancing.

Play computer games, bridge or chess. Or talk with someone while you're walking, hiking or cooking.

Spatial orientation (seeing how things fit together): Take apart and reassemble mechanical devices, sign up for a wood-working or ceramics class, learn to draw or paint, plan a room addition, go square dancing or play board games.

Manual dexterity and reaction time:
Play a musical instrument, video games, ping pong, or tennis, learn needlepoint or fly tying or assemble jigsaw puzzles.

Take this list as encouragement to expand your interests, not as a daunting or tedious prescription. Indeed, the best approach for many people is simply to find mentally stimulating activities they enjoy, since those are the ones they're most likely to stick with. "What's important is that you do those activities consistently, and for several days a week, not just once or twice," advises Robert Friedland, MD, chief of the laboratory of neurogeriatrics and associate professor of neurology psychiatry and radiology at Case Western Reserve University. " It won't help to go hear a lecture once a month. You need regular participation."

(From an article entitled 'Age-proofing your brain' in Health Section of Consumer Reports, August 2000)

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