Recently I read a newspaper article about a woman who is writing her PhD thesis at the advanced age of 93 years – notably about the philosophy of death. With further reading I stumbled across an article on another woman who graduated with a Master of Philosophy from the Australian National University, aged 90 years. I was so inspired by these women, still learning and researching at such a majestic age! Like me, you might start to wonder: how is it possible that some senior people are clever and alert until the end of their days, whereas others are forgetful or even develop severe diseases of the brain such as dementia? Can we train our brain to stay young even into our later years, or is everything already determined for us from birth as an imprint in our genes?
What makes a healthy brain? – Picture via Pixabay.
Diseases of the brain
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. Researchers found that Alzheimer’s disease is mainly characterised by the enrichment of two proteins, so called amyloid β and tau, in the brain of the patient.
Although it is believed that the cause of the disease is mostly genetic, with a few genes associated with increased risk (APOE for example), there lies some hope with several other studies investigating how external risk factors, such as lifestyle during early or mid-life can contribute to or prevent cognitive loss and dementia at various stages in life. These studies suggest that there is a relationship between vascular health status and risk of later cognitive decline and dementia. Further, a study on more than 1.1 million(!) Swedish young men that were followed for up to 42 years, claims that poor cardiovascular and cognitive fitness during early adulthood could be associated with a higher risk of early-onset dementia and mild cognitive impairment.
So, physical exercise for a healthy brain?
Whether we have a genetic pre-disposition for becoming forgetful or not, we should remember the benefits regular exercise can have on our brain next time we are struggling to swap those comfy scuffs for our runners. In short – get up from the couch even on these cold winter days! Furthermore, a study from the University of British Columbia has shown that regular exercise in a way that gets your heart rate up is not only good for our mood but even enlarges the hippocampus, the part of our brain that is important for both memory and learning. Therefore, exercise may help us stay not just fit but also smart into our old age.
Finally, it should be remembered that illnesses of the brain like Alzheimer’s and dementia, resulting in forgetfulness and impaired intellectual and social functions are diseases and not something to be ashamed of. With no current cure, there is an essential role for family members, friends and other care takers in improving the patient’s quality of life.