Published on: November 5, 2014
by Lucy Elkins for Daily Mail:
Every new wrinkle reveals how our skin is ageing, while our creaky joints and thickening waists tell the same story about the rate at which our bodies are growing old.
But what about our brains? What is happening within our heads as we age is far less obvious.
While many of us are familiar with the feeling of being less sharp as the years pass, or slower to process information, doctors have traditionally found it difficult to assess the rate at which our brains are ageing.
But that could be about to change, as a new tool to calculate people’s ‘brain age’ is being developed by Public Health England.
It will look at information such as weight, exercise levels, cholesterol and alcohol intake, as experts are increasingly aware that lifestyle factors — from how much you socialize to how many hours you sleep each night — can affect how our brains decline, as well as our risk of developing certain forms of dementia.
These factors can determine how many brain cells we lose and how fast, for as we age our brain literally starts to shrink as we lose more and more brain cells.
‘The older we get, the faster these brain cells are lost,’ said Dr Stuart Ritchie, a research fellow at the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh.
‘This leads to shrinkage in the size of the brain, and we now know that this shrinkage is linked to a loss of cognitive ability.’
The hundreds of connections between each of these cells, which help relay information, also start to fall apart.
‘The brain is just like any other part of your body — it can wear out with age,’ said Professor Michael Swash, emeritus professor of neurology at Queen Mary University of London.
‘After 60 we will all have some age-related changes to our brain.
‘For some these changes will come earlier, and for some they will come later.
‘Some people even have genetics that protect them from having virtually any changes at all.’
Yet the new lifestyle-based test under development shows it is not just genetics that play a part; so too does the way you live your life.
So just how is your ageing brain faring, and what future does it face?
Complete the test below, which has been developed by Dr Vincent Fortanasce, clinical professor of neurology at the University of Southern California, to find out your brain’s ‘real’ age — and see how your lifestyle could be hastening your cognitive decline…
ANSWER EITHER ‘TRUE’ OR ‘FALSE’ TO THE FOLLOWING STATEMENTS:
1. I get between seven and eight hours (or more) sleep each night.
2. I eat at least five or more servings of fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants daily.
3. I eat at least one serving of blueberries, raspberries or blackberries daily.
4. I eat baked or grilled fish high in omega-3 fatty acids at least three times a week.
5. I take fish oil supplements high in omega-3 fatty acids or flaxseed supplements at least five times per week.
6. I take folic acid supplementation and a daily multivitamin.
7. I take a low-dose aspirin daily.
8. I drink red wine or grape juice at least five times a week.
9. I exercise most days of the week for at least 30 minutes each time (total of three hours or more of strenuous exercise weekly).
10. I read challenging books, do crossword puzzles or Sudoku, or engage in activities that require active learning, memorising, computation, analysis and problem solving at least five times a week.
11. I have ‘longevity genes’ in my family, with members who have lived to 80 and older without memory loss.
12. My total cholesterol is below 5.2 mmol/l.
13. My LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol is below 3.3 mmol/l.
14. I am not obese (less than 1.4 stone overweight for a woman; less than 2.1 stone overweight for a man).
15. I eat a Mediterranean style diet — one high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, with olive oil as the source of fat and little red meat.
16. Instead of butter and margarine, I use olive oil and no trans-fat spreads.
17. I have never smoked cigarettes.
18. I have normal blood pressure.
19. I do not have diabetes.
20. I do not have metabolic syndrome (high triglycerides, central obesity, and hypertension), also called insulin resistance syndrome.
21. I do not have a sleep disorder such as snoring or obstructive sleep apnea or untreated insomnia.
22. Daily uncontrolled stress is not a problem for me.
23. I have a strong support group and enjoy many activities with friends, colleagues, and family members.
24. I have no problems with short or long-term memory.
25. I’m ready to prevent Alzheimer’s and am willing to do whatever it takes.
NOW ADD UP HOW MANY QUESTIONS YOU ANSWERED ‘TRUE’ TO… AND SEE WHAT YOUR SCORES MEAN:
0-11: You have a high risk of Alzheimer’s. Add 10 years to your chronological age for your Real Brain Age. Right now, call your doctor and talk openly about health problems you have. Ask if you’re doing all you can to manage these problems.
12-14: You have a moderate risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Add five years to your chronological age for your Real Brain Age. While there’s not a lot of disparity between your Real Brain Age and your chronological age, you need to understand the risks you have that increase the chances of Alzheimer’s.
15-19: OK. Your Real Brain Age is the same as your chronological age. That said, you have a mild risk of Alzheimer’s disease, so pay attention. Carefully review the quiz to see what changes you need to make to your diet, exercise, mental stimulation or rest and relaxation.
20-22: Not bad! Subtract ten years from your chronological age for your Real Brain Age. You are doing a lot to take care of your physical and mental health. Check the specific questions that you marked ‘False’ and be sure to pay attention to changes you need to make.
23-25: Congratulations, you are ageing well! Subtract 15 years from your chronological age for your Real Brain Age. You are presently healthy, with a youthful and productive mind. Unless things change in your life, your risk of Alzheimer’s disease is extremely low.
It’s important that you review the quiz and circle any of the statements that indicate some work is needed. Talk to your GP about your risk factors to see if treatment is indicated.
NOW… DISCOVER THE TRICKS TO KEEP YOUR BRAIN YOUNG
WORK OUT YOUR BODY
It used to be said that ‘Use It Or Lose It’ was the only way to keep your brain young.
And there does seem to be an element of truth in that. People who challenge their brain with crossword puzzles or Sudoku or by learning a new skill, such as a language, may help reduce the rate at which their brain ages, albeit only to a small degree.
What seems to work even better is having a fit body. Research shows that being physically fit will help keep your brain in good shape, too. Even just moderate walking for 30-35 minutes a day has been shown to help reduce the rate at which the ageing brain shrinks.
And the idea that you are what you eat applies to your brain as well as your body.
Eating a Mediterranean-style diet, high in fruit and vegetables and low in meat and saturated fat, may have a protective effect. That is because the antioxidants in the fruit and vegetables may help prevent normal damage to the brain cells. Some experts believe that eating oily fish, rich in omega 3 oils, can also help reduce inflammation in the brain that may encourage damage to brain cells — although studies have not been conclusive on that.
GET LOTS OF SLEEP
A lack of sleep is also brain-ageing. A recent study found that people who work night shifts over a ten-year period age their brain by the equivalent of six-and-half years. It is thought that the lack of sleep can hasten the death of brain cells.
Poor diet can also have an ageing effect. Studies have found that just a week of eating junk food can lead to problems with memory.
KICK BAD BRAIN HABITS
What is bad for your body is generally bad for your brain. Smoking, being overweight or having high blood pressure or raised cholesterol are all likely to increase the speed at which your brain ages. This is because all of these affect the health of the blood vessels in your body — and of blood vessels in your brain. The brain needs a good flow of blood, and even a tiny micro-bleed can lead to the death of cells.
HAVE A GOOD SOCIAL LIFE
An easy way to keep mentally young is to mix with others. People who stay ‘socially engaged’ seem to reduce the rate at which their brain ages.
‘This makes a difference — not a big one, but a difference nonetheless,’ says Dr Stuart Ritchie.
Studies demonstrate that those with a good social life fare better on cognitive tests as they age. Research has even shown that being part of a strong network can reduce the impact of Alzheimer’s disease.
Socially active adults have healthier brain scans, too, perhaps because interacting with others stimulates the parts of the brain involved in planning and decision-making.
While stimulation is good for the brain, too much challenge or too big a workload can be detrimental, as stress has a direct effect on brain function.
Research has found that stress is bad for brain cells and can disturb cognitive processes such as learning.
The area of the brain called the hippocampus, where memories are formed, can be debilitated by chronic stress, while high levels of the stress hormone cortisone has a corrosive effect. It can speed up short-term memory loss in older adults and wear down parts of the brain crucial for memory storage and processing. Some research even suggests stress can accelerate the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Yoga, exercise and meditation can help reduce stress and thereby reduce its negative effect on our brains.
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