A study published April 11 in the Journal of Neuroscience outlined research done into how and why aging results in changes in the brain that impact the ability to make decisions in new situations. Their findings indicate that the decline in decision-making is associated with the weakening of two specific white-matter pathways that connect an area called the medial prefrontalcortex (located in the cerebral cortex) with two other areas deeper in the brain, called the thalamus and the ventralstriatum.
- The medial prefrontal cortex is involved in decision-making
- The ventral striatum is involved in emotional and motivational aspects of behavior, and
- The thalamus is a highly connected relay center.
The finding is leading the way towards effective interventions – ways to strengthen the connections using specific forms of cognitive training.
Most healthy individuals focus on the diet and exercise factors in keeping fit – but what about brain fitness – ways to maintain or improve brain health as we age?
Our increased knowledge in overall health and aging in resulting in an older population – meaning that the percentage of those with age-related cognitive problems will rise. According to the National Institute on Aging, it is expected that this will reach 20% of the population by 2030.
Whilst many advocate word puzzles and certain types of music to aid brain health, it is actually simple habits that will have a greater impact. Many lifestyle choices are linked to brain health, including:
- Exercise – enhances nerve cell formation and survival in parts of the brain associated with learning and memory.
- Diet – diets high in fat and sugar increase the formation of a protein implicated in Alzheimer’s disease.
- Chronic stress – can damage the hippocampus — a brain region linked with learning, memory, and emotion.
Aerobic fitness enhances learning and memory, and the speed of learning. Exercise encourages the development of new brain cells — a process called neurogenesis — in the hippocampus. Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are characterized by a decreased number of neurons in this brain region.
Physical fitness prevents the atrophy of brain regions, including the hippocampus. One study showed inactive older adults who begin to walk three times a week have improved efficiency in the neural networks involved in cognition. Physical activity affects executive control functions, such as multi-tasking, scheduling, and planning. Thus, exercise has a wide range of benefits, from cellular to behavioral.
A balanced diet esures that blood sugar levels maintain a positive affect on brain health. The right levels of blood sugar glucose provides the brain with fuel, without overwhelming the body’s ability to use and regulate sugars effectively. Abnormally low levels of glucose, a state known as hypoglycemia, impair the delivery of nutrients to the brain and injure cells.
Avoiding undue stress also plays an important role in maintaining brain health – a brain subjected to long-term psychological stress is impacted by the constant exposure to the steroid hormones ( glucocorticoids), which are released in response to stress.
So it seems the basic three win out again — regular exercise, diet and weight management, and low stress —support your cognitive abilities with aging.