Aging and Cognitive Function
Aging is often associated with functional changes in the brain that can affect our ability to recall recent events, organize our thoughts, or find the right words to express ourselves. Sometimes cognitive decline can be linked to detrimental influences such as free-radical damage, nutrient deficiencies, lifestyle choices (such as smoking or excessive alcohol intake), and emotional stress. On the other hand, some memory loss is common in the aging population, and it is a widely held belief that some amount of memory loss is expected as we grow older. Whether memory loss really is normal with aging remains a question that is open to debate.
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For some people, however, even beginning as early as mid-life, cognitive decline can cause a slow, progressive decline in higher brain functions such as memory, concentration, and verbal ability. Extremes of cognitive decline, including dementia related to vascular disease (including post-stroke) and Alzheimer's disease, are never considered to be "normal."
The following are some tips to help you better understand how the brain works, how to check your brain function, and how to keep your mind sharp.
Memory and the Brain
The information that comprises what we generally think of as memory is classified as either short-term (recent) memory or long-term (remote) memory. Short-term memory may include information like a comment someone just made, the name of a person you recently met, or what you had for breakfast. On the other hand, remote or long-term memory includes stored information from years past, such as the memories of childhood and youth.
Age and the Brain
Aging can affect memory through changes in the way the brain stores information, making it harder to recall or retrieve information when we want it. The body also may start making less of the chemicals that the brain needs to function optimally. The older we become, the more these changes can affect our memory. Usually, long-term memories are not affected by aging. But short-term memory may begin to start slipping. For example, we can't remember the name of someone we know, or we can't recall a word we know when we want to use it in a conversation. These are frustrating experiences, but generally they are considered normal.
It was initially believed that we were only allotted a certain number of brain cells at birth, and we would lose them here and there throughout our lifetime as we aged. It was thought that this process would typically start around 20 years of age and progress from there, the rate being dependent on factors such as genetic makeup and lifestyle. Recent research, however, suggests that we may actually be able to grow new brain cells by continually exercising our brain. Exercising our brain means keeping an "active" mind – learning new things, reading good books, engaging with other people, and also being physically active.
Things That Can Affect Memory
Serious memory problems can be the result of any number of factors outside of aging. Such factors can include depression, dementia, side effects from medications, stroke, head injury, and substance abuse (including excessive alcohol intake).
When Memory Problems Become Serious
Lapses in memory can become a serious problem when these lapses affect the activities of daily living. Momentarily forgetting a friend's name is not a big deal. Not remembering an answer to a Jeopardy question you are absolutely certain you know is not a big deal. But, for example, if you have trouble remembering how to do things that are a part of your everyday routine or how to get to places you go to regularly (like the grocery store or post office), that can be a sign of something more serious. Another difference between normal memory lapses related to aging and progressive cognitive decline related to dementia is that normal memory lapses usually do not get progressively worse over time. Dementia, on the other hand, does become progressively worse over a period of months and years. If you have a concern about memory loss and/or dementia, be sure to talk to your health-care practitioner. Well-trained health-care professionals today are very much aware of the issues related to aging and cognitive decline. They know what questions to ask you and what tests to perform, and they will know what advice to give you. They will certainly be able to help you.
Signs of Potentially Serious Memory Problems
Forgetting things much more frequently
Forgetting how to do routine tasks
Difficulty learning new things
Repeating phrases or stories in the same conversation
Difficulty making decisions or handling money
Inability to keep track of daily events and activities
Tips on Improving Memory and Keeping the Brain Active and Healthy
MAKE A LIST
Get in the habit of keeping lists to help jog your memory. Keep a detailed calendar to help you remember dates and appointments.
DEVELOP AND FOLLOW A ROUTINE
Put important items, such as your keys, in the same place every time.
TRY TO MAKE ASSOCIATIONS
Connect things in your mind between things you want to remember, such as using landmarks to help you find places.
When you are introduced to someone new, be sure to repeat his or her name.
Aerobic exercise in particular can increase blood supply to the brain, stimulate the development of new neurons, and help make more connections between them. Just 45 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, such as walking or even gardening three times a week, can help you achieve these benefits.
EAT A BALANCED DIET
Research studies have demonstrated that animals on nutrition-rich diets are smarter than those fed poorly. This conclusion could very well hold true for people!
TAKE YOUR VITAMINS
Research continues to be compiled that concludes there are a number of dietary supplements – vitamins, minerals, and botanicals – that can promote healthy brain function.* At a minimum, ensure that you get the federal government's recommended daily allowances of vitamins C, E, B6, B12, and folate.
BE A LIFELONG LEARNER
Master a new skill or take a class in something you are interested in. Whether it is salsa dancing, sailing, or arts and history, learning new things sharpens your ability to focus and concentrate, not just on the task at hand but overall.
PLAY GAMES AND DO PUZZLES
Playing games like bridge and chess and doing puzzles like anagrams, crosswords, and Sudoku can help keep your brain sharp.
Smoking damages blood vessels, including those in the brain. Research suggests that smoking in mid-life results in poor memory and learning problems. Smoking is considered a risk factor for dementia. Stopping smoking can help reduce this unnecessary risk factor.
Studies suggest a good night's sleep triggers changes in the brain that can help improve memory. On the flip side, it is well-known that sleep deprivation can have a significant adverse impact on one's ability to concentrate and perform complex tasks. So make sure you get your sleep!
WATCH YOUR ALCOHOL INTAKE
Although some researchers say that moderate amounts of alcohol (amounts equivalent to a couple of drinks a day for a human) improved the memories of laboratory rats, alcohol intake can interfere with getting a good night's sleep, and heavy drinking has been found to have negative effects on long-term memory. Everything in moderation is the best principle.
Chronic stress can impair your memory and make it difficult to concentrate. Find ways to better manage your stress – take up a new hobby, Self Analysis, or even try not reading the newspaper or watching the news and see how much more relaxed you become. If all else fails, switch from coffee to Green Tea.
Seek an Integrative Approach
Consider consulting with a licensed, integrative health-care practitioner about aging and healthy cognitive function. Many integrative health-care practitioners are familiar with a wide range and number of safe and well-researched complementary and alternative therapies about which he or she can talk to you that can be used to help maintain healthy cognitive function in older individuals.
For more information:
National Institute on Aging Information Center
American Association of Naturopathic Physicians