How to Keep your Brain Sharp

By Steven N. Austad, PhD - Scientific Director, American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR), Distinguished Professor and  Chair, Department of Biology, University of Alabama at Birmingham

How many animals whose name begins with the letter “P” can you name in 60 seconds?

Let’s see, parrot, piranha, pika, panda, python, panther….You probably have no idea how many you can name in 60 seconds, but I can give you a clue. Assuming you are at least 30 years old, the number of animals you can name is smaller than it would have been 10 years ago. That’s because your brain’s processing speed has slowed. If given enough time, you could no doubt come up with as many animals as ever, maybe more. It just takes more time. This is a type of brain aging that begins particularly early. But as we all know certain types of memory lapses also increase as we age. They just become evident later in life.

We all understandably fear Alzheimer’s disease, which is caused largely by aging, and a great deal of research effort is going into discovering ways to prevent or delay it. But shouldn’t we also be putting research effort into ways to prevent or delay the normal loss of processing speed and memory decline that accompanies aging?

In fact, some researchers are doing exactly that.

A recent conference sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and the McKnight Brain Institute brought together neuroscientists who work at the cutting edge of Alzheimer’s disease and normal brain aging. I attended that conference and have some good news to report.

Most importantly, it is becoming clear that lifestyle can affect brain aging for better or worse. Aerobic exercise turns out to be almost a miracle drug for preserving brain health. For years, we have heard of all the cardiovascular benefits of exercise, but now it turns out to have benefits for the brain too. This heartening finding comes not from a single study— single studies often turn out to be wrong— but from a wide range of studies in both humans and animals. It’s the sort of finding you can take to the bank.

Some other good news is that new types of braining training are being developed that can actually help preserve both memory and processing speed. I know that various commercially available brain games claim to be able to do this now, but researchers at the conference were pretty unanimous that there is vanishingly little evidence to support these claims. However, new research using sophisticated tools such as virtual reality games and other advanced training methods combined with state-of-the-art brain imaging to see how and where the brain is activated by various types of training have already begun to show improved memory as a result of the training. Rapid advances can be expected in this realm.

As Scientific Director of the American Federation for Aging Research, I’m excited to see the creativity our grantees have brought to their research on memory and aging. Take Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, at UCSF, whose research on how gaming can maintain memory as we grow older has been featured in The New York Times and even a PBS special. And Scott Small, MD of Columbia University is looking at how exercise may prevent memory loss.

Finally, researchers are beginning to learn a lot from studies like Rush University’s Memory and Aging Project, in which people volunteer to have their mental abilities evaluated over time while they are alive but have also agreed to have their brains examined after they die. One of the things we have learned from these studies is that particularly among the very oldest groups, those reaching at least the age of 90 (which incidentally more than a quarter of Americans now do), some have all the brain damage we typically associate with Alzheimer’s disease, but were mentally sharp up until the time they died. We clearly have a lot to learn about preserving brain function from studying what aspects of these people’s lives have made them so resistant to age-related brain damage. The early evidence indicates that education plays a large role, as does sleeping more, and watching television less.

The National Institute on Aging also offers a fantastic range of articles and resources on cognitive health and aging.

From playing a science-backed brain game to getting a good night’s rest, science is showing what you can do to stay sharp as you grow older. Go make some memories.

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