Successful Aging: Strategies to Help Maintain and Nurture a Healthy Brain


Our brains can be trained to function better as we age, and it doesn't take the Fountain of Youth to get there. In this podcast, geriatric psychiatrist Helen Lavretsky prescribes strategies to challenge our brains. She notes: "The more we challenge our brain, the more new nerve pathways and circuits we form."

When it comes to aging, is there anything to look forward to from a neurocognitive perspective?

What can we do to protect our brains from cognitive and functional decline?

Here, Helen Lavretksy speaks about one of her favorite subjects – healthy, happy, and graceful aging. Dr Lavretsky is a geriatric psychiatrist and Professor in the department of psychiatry at UCLA. She directs the Late Life Mood, Stress, and Wellness Research Program at the Semel Institute at UCLA. She is coeditor of the newly published Late Life Mood Disorders-a comprehensive review of the current research advances in late life mood disorders.

Podcast highlights

.Globally, many societies are being affected in major economic and social ways in countries where the population is aging rapidly, such as Japan (23% over 65), Germany (20.5%), Italy (20.4%), and the US (13%). The countries that show that fastest rate of change in population age, in order, are Iran, Vietnam, Mexico, India, and South Korea. The obvious consequences are a shrinking labor force and shifting of a nation’s wealth to health care.

.In general, as we age, our bodies and brain experience changes: some are positive -- and some are not so much. Although some cognitive functions such as memory, reasoning, and complex problem solving can decline with age, the National Institute of Aging states that approximately 87% of those age 65 years and older are cognitively healthy.

.Our wisdom, knowledge, and judgment improve with age, but we walk, think, and act slower. We lose some of the hormones, brain neurotransmitters, and flexibility of the joints, and inflammatory processes develop. This can undermine our resilience to stress and coping. Sometimes, our memory starts to fail, especially the short-term form of memory ability that is so crucial for  new learning.

.However, there are glorious examples of success and vibrance and resilience in older  adults.  Level of education and a lifetime of intellectual activity seem to protect the brain against aging. Some examples:

Leo Tolstoy learned to ride a bicycle at 67.

Giuseppe Verdi was still composing operas in his 80s.

In their 90s, Robert Frost was writing poems and George Bernard Shaw was writing plays. Georgia O’Keefe was painting pictures.

.Scientists are particularly noted for being sharp and productive long into the late 80s and 90s. The National Science Foundation reports that at age 69, more than 29% of scientists and engineers with PhDs still work full-time, compared with 13% of scientists with a MS or BS degree. 

.Of course, genetics and luck have a lot to do with how well one ages. But even so, gene expression is influenced by things like exercise, diet, life style choices,  and physical and mental activity.

.The search for the fountain of youth has created a growth of anti-aging industry focused on vitamins and supplements, diets, gym facilities, mind training programs, and self-help books on Alzheimer prevention. The good news is that these things can work, especially if they are initiated early on while people are in early middle age, and in those with risk factors such as a family history of dementia or genetic predisposition.

.Amazingly, our brains can be trained to function better as we age. To take advantage of the brain’s plasticity or inherent ability to grow, rebuild, and rewire itself, individuals need to implement the necessary steps to maximize cognitive function sooner rather than later, and maintain the motivation to remain cognitively active, informed, and engaged.

.The more we challenge our brain, the more new nerve pathways and circuits we form. Beyond reading or finishing our daily crossword puzzle, another way to challenge the brain is to learn how to play a musical instrument or speak a new language. Games like chess, bridge, and mahjong require you to think and strategize – and also to interact socially at the same time.  Mixing different activities is particularly helpful in exercising different parts of the brain.

.Maintaining perfect balance between mind-body and spirit by pursuing enjoyable hobbies, being in nature, improving social connectedness and social support, and stress reduction techniques are very important in maintaining a healthy brain. Therefore, pursuing spiritual activities and mindful exercise like yoga and  meditation or Tai Chi is important. As for physical activities, studies have shown that even 30 minutes of modest activity can help people increase their cognitive functions; MRI scans demonstrate hippocampal thickness and overall gray matter thickness .

.Other important factors include a reduction in vascular risk factors, like diabetes or high blood pressure; proper sleep schedule; and nutrition-- all important components of brain health and successful aging. 

.Most important: stay positive and optimistic, enjoy life, and be grateful for all that it has to offer. This will promote mental health and resilience and lead to improved ability to cope with any adversities and with aging.

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