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Alzheimer’s is Not Inevitable: Myths of the Aging Brain

“Funny You Should Say That: The value of humor”

(This story is by Margie Culbertson, an AARP Mississippi volunteer and freelance writer. Her photo is on the left.)

Myths of the Aging Brain:

“For a long time, it was assumed that as we become older, the connections in the brain became fixed, and then it was just a matter of time that we started “losing” brain cells. However, this assumption is being aggressively challenged by recent studies showing that the brain never stops changing.” So says Mario Garrett, Ph.D. in an article called “Brain Plasticity: learning new tricks in older age.”  Brain plasticity, or the brain’s capacity to “rewire” in response to new learning, is explained on this video. Science has proven that brains continue to change in response to mental activity via this plasticity and make new neurons throughout life.

Four myths about the aging brain are listed and then challenged on the AARP website, and they include the myth of the stagnant aging brain. (All quoted material):

·         Brain Myth #1: You can't change your brain.
Your brain is constantly changing in response to your experiences. . .everything we do and think about is reflected in patterns of activity in our brains.

·         Brain Myth #2: People lose brain cells every day and eventually just run out.
Actually, most regions of the brain do not lose brain cells as you age. . .It's also possible that you can even grow new brain cells and create new connections, or prevent the ones you have from withering, if you “ exercise your brain.”

·         Brain Myth #3: The brain doesn't make new brain cells.
This myth. . .has recently been proven false.

·         Brain Myth #4: Memory decline is inevitable as we age.
Many people reach very old age and are still sharp as ever. Genetics clearly plays a role in "successful aging," but how we live our lives on a day-to-day basis is also critical. To help your brain age well, you can change your lifestyle.

Finally, there are several articles on the aging brain and its positive, and sometimes surprising, aspects. Personally, I highly recommend Dr. Gene Cohen’s book  “The Mature Mind,” as well as his other books, available at most libraries.

Delay or Prevent Alzheimer’s?

According to a July 2014 article, not only can you prevent memory decline, but research from the University of Cambridge found that, “One in three cases of Alzheimer's disease worldwide is preventable.” They list seven main risk factors for Alzheimer's including: diabetes, mid-life hypertension, mid-life obesity, physical inactivity, depression, smoking, low educational attainment. And researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, report echo these findings, but they say that 50% of Alzheimer’s are preventable by addressing major risk factors like: low education, smoking, lack of exercise, and chronic conditions like depression, diabetes and mid-life high blood pressure and obesity. Sound familiar? Read on. This article adds to the conversation, suggesting we keep in mind what might is often called the “use it or lose it” solution. They emphasize we should keep our brains active and challenged.

Our Changing, Capable, Aging Brains:

Many older adults are getting smarter every day, according to Dr. Michael Merzenich, PhD, brain research specialist, in his terrific article.  

One of Dr. Merzenich’s anecdotes says it all: “I know a woman who didn’t begin to paint until she was in her 60’s, yet ended her life as a professional painter of high quality. We are capable of remarkable brain changes contributing to the development of remarkable new abilities at any stage of life.”

(NOTE: This August column is the fifth in our six-part series dealing with Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia. In September, the last column in the series, we’ll focus on the other types of Dementia Disorders—some reversible—and we’ll cover the topic of advocacy. To contact Margie, or gain access to her earlier columns, email her at humorandlife@gmail.com]).

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