Shrinking brains may sound like a punk rock band from the ’70s or a so-bad-it’s-funny horror movie, but brain shrinkage is a serious phenomenon that accompanies aging and can cause everything from memory loss to premature death as our brains gradually atrophy over time.
That’s why researchers are so interested in studying the brains of so-called super agers: extraordinary, sharp-thinking seniors who experience relatively minor shrinkage well into their 70s, 80s, and even 90s. The idea is that by better understanding how super agers retain youthful brains, others can benefit.
“With diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia being some of the biggest killers in the Western world, now more than ever, it is important to study the aging brain,” says Dr. Samuel Malloy, general practitioner and medical director.
Malloy believes studying the brains of super agers offers the perfect medium for understanding the correlation between brain shrinkage and health issues.
“Studying super agers can tell us a lot about the healthy brain in old age,” Malloy says. “By researching the lives and brains of the super-aged we can make more informed lifestyle choices, so we can take action early to protect our brain in the future.”
The Extraordinary Shrinking Brain
Your brain is probably shrinking this very instant and will continue to as long as you live. Some shrinkage is considered normal. But too much shrinkage is bad because it reduces brain cells and creates inferior synaptic connections. During childhood our brains grow furiously, but at about age 25, brain growth brakes suddenly, then slowly goes in reverse. Even the most healthy individuals may lose as much as 0.4 percent of their brain mass every year. As we age, that shrinkage rate increases and is a major factor in early cognitive decline and early death. Older adults with significant brain shrinkage are at increased risk of vascular death and ischemic stroke.
But it’s not just older adults who suffer from brain shrinkage. Younger people with general brain shrinkage from diseases like diabetes, or simply not exercising their brains sufficiently increase their odds of dying prematurely as much as 70 percent. Even excessive stress is enough to initiate brain shrink, according to functional medicine practitioner and sports nutritionist Brandon Mentore.
“Brain shrinkage is a broad aspect of accelerated aging that is multifactorial,” says Mentore. “The wear and tear over time on the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA) in your brain that globally responds to stress contributes to your cognitive abilities, memory recall, and retention. The more you burn through this system the more it deteriorates.”
Also, atrophy of specific brain regions and types of matter has been associated with different types of behavioral, cognitive, or mental health problems. For instance, the shrinkage of the temporal lobes is associated with a 181 percent increase in the risk of major depression. Gray matter shrinks more gradually than white matter. But a University of Pittsburgh study found that more gray matter shrinkage increased the rate of cognitive decline by twofold. A 2013 study from Wayne State University conducted MRI scans on 49 people and found that shrinkage occurred mostly in the brain’s lateral prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, the caudate nucleus, and the cerebellum.
In yet another study, gray matter brain regions found shrunk in Alzheimer’s disease patients (who have considerably more shrinkage than normal) included the posterior cingulate and neocortical temporoparietal cortices, and in the medial temporal lobe.
How Ketones Figure In This
Not only do adult brains shrink throughout our lives, they start out smaller. That’s right. Scientists confirm that the human brain reached its peak some 20,000 years ago before the introduction of agriculture. In just the past 10,000 years, we lost about 150 milliliters (tennis ball size) in brain matter. This loss has probably accelerated in the last 100 years with the onset of junk food and trans fats.
While there are many theories as to why we have smaller brains, significant changes in diet and nutrition would seem the logical place to start. Before farming, humans were hunters and had a diet high in natural fat. This changed with the introduction of grains, potatoes, and fruits — carbohydrates and fructose. This radical change in human diet reduced the consumption of ketone bodies, water soluable molecules produced by the liver, which provides a kind of high grade jet fuel for the body, especially the brain.
Ketone bodies are a cleaner, more efficient brain fuel that reduces oxidative stress while increasing mitochondrial activity, neuron signaling, and cerebral blood flow. Ketone bodies have also been shown to reduce the probability of chronic illnesses like autoimmune and cancer as well improve cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
The Diabetes/Obesity Connection
Findings also suggest that high blood sugar levels and the advanced glycation end products (AGEs) that they produce cause neurodegeneration and brain atrophy. AGE’s are found naturally in the body as well as in foods that make them tasty to us. Essentially, AGE’s are toxic compounds associated with diabetes. Diabetics compared to nondiabetics of similar age have an average of 4 percent less hippocampal volume and nearly 3 percent less in whole brain volume.
Researchers believe that obesity, which can contribute to diabetes, causes brain shrinkage. Higher body mass index (BMI, a measure of obesity) is associated with lower brain volume in obese and overweight people.
There’s also a peculiar link between brain atrophy and people who carry the gene variant called FTO, which is associated with fat mass and obesity. Findings show that carriers of the FTO gene variant have approximately 8 percent smaller frontal lobe volumes, and 12 percent smaller occipital (back of the brain) volumes.
Momas Don’t Let Your Children Play Contact Sports
In recent years, professional sports organizations such as the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB) have upgraded their concussion protocols. A player who suffers any kind of head injury during a game is whisked off the field and immediately examined by a physician who determines whether or not the player can return. These new precautions came about after two frightening studies on former NFL players: one showed that players who had more than one concussion had a threefold greater risk of suffering from clinical depression; the other showed that NFL players had a 19 times greater risk of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease than the normal population for men ages 30 through 49.
Then in 2014, Boston University researchers announced a study that showed in autopsies of 79 brains of former NFL players, 76 had tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), characterized by dizziness, disorientation, headaches, and even suicide.
For brain atrophy researchers, these sports studies are not surprising. A Boston University of Medicine study found that repeated blows to the head tend to result in greater brain shrinkage over time. The researchers found the link in all contact sports, but especially in football, hockey, soccer, boxing, and wrestling. They also found that physical abuse in general can result in shrinkage.
Those Rockin’ Sockin’ Brain Resilient Super Agers
Researchers are still trying to figure out what exactly separates super agers from the 40 percent (and climbing) of the population over the age of 60 who suffer from some degree of memory loss. A study by researchers at the Northwestern University of Feinberg School of Medicine offers some clues.
The study focused on 12 people over the age of 80 who performed as well on memory tests as people 30 years younger. The researchers performed MRI scans on these super agers expecting to find some evidence of cerebral decline. But to the surprise of the researchers, the brains of the super agers matched the average brain thickness of younger groups. One brain region in particular, offered an important clue: the anterior cingulate, which is located under the frontal lobe, was incredibly thicker in the super agers than in their younger counterparts. This area of the brain is important for attention, suggesting that super agers may have a particularly keen sense of attention that helps support memory. Turns out that compared with normal octogenarians, super agers have four times as many von Economo neurons, which are large cingulate brain cells implicated in higher-order thinking.
And yet another study of retirement age individuals by investigators at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) examined a group of older adults with extraordinary memory performance and found that certain key areas of their brains resembled those of young people. One key finding showed that the super agers had no shrinkage in a group of brain regions known as the salience network, including the anterior insula, para-midcingulate cortex and orbitofrontal cortex. Researchers now believe that effective communication between these regions is crucial for healthy cognitive aging.
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5 Keys To Prevent Brain Shrinkage
Once thought as an inevitable consequence of aging, a growing number of neuroscientists believe that brain atrophy is by no means absolute, and may even be reversed. Based on MRI scans and interviews with super agers, it’s very likely you can at least slow brain shrinkage by following these tips:
If you have any hope of being a super ager, better get off the couch and exercise. And the sooner you start the better. Scientists have found that those who exercise during middle age suffer less brain shrinkage 20 years later than their inactive counterparts.
But exercise at any age appears to slow brain atrophy. An interesting University of Pittsburgh study followed the brain size of 299 older adults with an average age of 78 years. Those who walked 72 blocks a week had significantly increased gray matter and reduced incidence of cognitive decline.
A study from the University of Illinois divided people between the ages of 60 and 79 years old into two exercise groups – those who stretched and those who did aerobics. After only six months, MRI scans showed those who did the more vigorous aerobic training had significant increases in brain size in both gray and white matter areas. The stretchers continued to show brain atrophy.
2. Mixing It Up
It’s been a long day at work, you’re tired when you get home and just want to veg out. So you sit down in front of the TV and watch mindless programs. In fact you’ve done this so often you have all the programs you want to watch memorized on any given day at any given time. At 10 p.m. you turn off the set and head for bed.
You’re also heading for brain shrinkage.
Neuroscientists say the brain is like a muscle, use it or lose it. Giving your brain a mental workout keeps it bigger and stronger and can help it grow new neurons and create new pathways well into old age. Flex that bad boy. Use your other hand, learn a language, work puzzles, start playing the guitar, try sleeping on the opposite side of the bed. But above all, avoid habits and boring routines.
3. Healthy Diet
Last year, researchers from Columbia University showed how it’s possible to prevent brain shrinkage simply by eating healthier. They studied 674 people with an average age of 80 who did not suffer from dementia. Researchers had each person complete extensive diet questionnaires. They were then given MRI scans. The volunteers who adhered most closely to a Mediterranean diet of fruits, vegetables, and seafood had total brain volumes of a half-ounce more than red meat eaters.
However, vegans take heed. Some meat is necessary. Researchers speculate that the increased shrinkage seen in vegetarians and vegans may be due to lack of vitamin B-12, which occurs naturally only in animal products. A Finnish study concluded that foods rich in B-12 reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Doctor Morton E. Tavel, author of Snake Oil Is Alive and Well, recommends a hybrid of the Mediterranean diet, he calls the MIND diet, which researchers at RUSH University showed that elderly adults on this diet had cognition seven years younger than normal.
“A follow-up study also showed that those following this diet cut their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in half,” says Tavel. “And even those who only partially followed this plan still had an amazing 35 percent lower risk.”
Tavel recommends eating at least one cup of dark green vegetable per day along with one cup of another kind of vegetable. He also believes five, 1 ounce servings of nuts (especially Brazil nuts) per week and one cup twice a week of blueberries or strawberries will keep that shrinkage at bay.
Just as vitamin B-12 is important in the foods we eat, B vitamin supplements can also battle shrinkage. A University of Oxford study investigated this by dividing 156 older adults into groups who took B vitamins daily and those who didn’t over a period of two years. MRI brain scans showed that the vitamin B group had significantly less brain shrinkage, suggesting that B vitamins might help delay brain atrophy or even increase brain size.
A similar study was done by the University of Illinois with remarkably similar results. This study like the Oxford one, indicates that vitamin B helps to keep down the blood levels of the homocysteine amino acid, associated with brain shrinkage as well as heart disease and strokes.
Fermented foods and probiotic supplements help promote the production of the entire B vitamin group, which is produced continually within your gut. Probiotics are good bacteria that help keep your digestive system healthy by controlling growth of harmful bacteria. Yogurt and organically grown raw foods are excellent sources of probiotics. Then there are prebiotics that act as a kind of fertilizer for the probiotics. A new supplement range by Natural Doctor also offers neuronal balance and vitalization.
5. Reduce Stress/Sleep Better
It’s amazing how many health problems can be ameliorated with better sleep and stress management. True also with brain atrophy.
A University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) study suggests sleep is necessary for the brain to get rid of waste. The study reveals that the brain’s cells shrivel up by 60 percent while we sleep to wash away the cellular garbage more effectively. Think of it as backwashing a pool. In this case shrinkage is good. This temporary brain atrophy helps prevent permanent atrophy. So the more sleep the better.
Elizabeth Amini, adjunct professor at the University of Southern California (USC), says shrinkage caused by stress can sometimes be reversed by reversing the obvious.
“If someone working at a stressful job quits and gets a more relaxing job, brain shrinkage may be reversed over time,” Amini said.
Mentore believes while some stress in inevitable, everyone can management it better.
“Under intense stress, the hippocampus, which is responsible for rational thought and short-term memory, shrinks and causes memory loss and inability to focus,” says Mentore. “Managing stress keeps your brain and mental faculties on an even keel.”
Meditation has also been shown to not only build gray matter but it can help to rebuild the brain. Teachers of meditation call it the “relaxation response,” which lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety. Meditation modalities such as yoga or even prayer can reverse the expressions involved with cell death in the brain, according to numerous studies including last year’s study at UCLA.
Thomas Ropp Longtime journalist Thomas Ropp is an environmental advocate and proponent of living healthier. After spending most of his life in Arizona, he relocated to a Costa Rican rainforest ten years ago and helped with reforestation projects to expand the habitat of the endangered mono titi monkey. He has dual residency in the United States and Costa Rica.
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