6 Things We Have Learned About the Aging Brain Since 2015
As women over 60, one thing we can agree on is that time doesn’t stand still. Fortunately for us, neither does research into the ways aging affects our brains. And it couldn’t come at a better time, given the looming Alzheimer’s epidemic we’ve all been told to expect.
In today’s very enlightening video, developmental molecular biologist and “curious scientist” Dr. John Medina and Margaret Manning highlight the progress researchers have made in understanding the aging brain since 2015. What they’ve learned might surprise you!
Welcome to the Wellderlies
If brain research has revealed anything since 2015, Dr. Medina says, it’s that the more we learn about aging, the less we really know. And one of the major findings is that no two brains age in exactly the same way.
Your brain is as individual as you! So many men and women over 60 have the brain function of people decades younger, in fact, that Dr. Medina has dubbed them the “Wellderlies!”
So don’t buy into the fear that your brain function must necessarily spiral downward with each birthday. Research shows it’s simply not so!
Our Brains Need Company
Since 2015, research into the effects of loneliness on the aging brain has underscored the importance of maintaining an active social life. Regular contact with people we enjoy is vital for maintaining our cognitive brain function.
How important is cognitive brain function? It’s what lets us make decisions by drawing on our retained knowledge. And it depends on specific brain molecules that thrive on social interactions!
Reliving the Good Old Days
Speaking of spending time with friends, how much of your social life is devoted to sharing memories of how great things used to be? Indulging in nostalgia is a favorite pastime among many older women. And we now know why!
It simply makes us feel good. Research shows that our verbal and social skills remain elevated for a couple of hours after reminiscing with people we care about. Sharing the past really does relieve loneliness’ negative effects on our brains.
Since 2015, the biggest brain research breakthroughs may have come in our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease. In his book Brain Rules for Aging Well, Dr. Medina questions whether Alzheimer’s disease is a single, age-related pathology. He refers to it as “a default diagnosis after you rule everything else out.”
Current research views Alzheimer’s as an accumulation of things going wrong in the brain beginning as early as our 20s. Their effects don’t become obvious until much later.
The hope is that — if we can pinpoint exactly what starts negative events that eventually surface as Alzheimer’s — a preventive vaccine might be possible.
This paradigm shift began with a study of young villagers in Colombia. Their brains began developing Alzheimer-like proteins when they were only 19 or 20. That study led to the introduction of an imaging system that uses antibodies to bind to these proteins.
The idea is that if Alzheimer’s is an age-related disease, young people wouldn’t have any proteins for the antibodies to bind to. But that isn’t the case.
Before these findings, billions of dollars went to researching pharmaceutical remedies targeting final-stage Alzheimer’s. If the condition really begins in our 20s, another approach (such as a measles-like vaccine) is required.
While cognitive memory may fade with age, the news for our semantic and procedural memories has improved since 2015. Semantic memory regulates vocabulary — which has been shown to improve slightly over time.
And procedural memory (the one holding learned motor skills) stays with us to the end. That’s why we never forget how to walk or to hop aboard bikes and pedal away, even if decades have passed since our last rides.
Growing in Wisdom
The greatest gift aging bestows on us, Dr. Medina believes, is the wisdom of accumulated knowledge. Our stored knowledge databases are far larger than those of much younger people.
So sifting through them naturally takes time. It’s not that our brains slow down: they just have more information to process. We must compare many memories when reaching a decision. Wisdom replaces youth’s snap, impulsive choices.
In their place are more thoughtful ones, based on a lifetime of often conflicting experiences. And the research since 2015 shows that our ability to look at issues from multiple angles increases the longer we live!
Teaching as a Memory Enhancer
One unique legacy each of us can leave is to share our lifetime’s knowledge with very young children. Recent research shows that preschoolers taught by older people learn more and behave better. Why?
Because their teachers are patient. They’re also less distracted by things like mortgages. And interacting with the children lets them ignore their own aches and pains. For them, Dr. Medina says, it’s a decentering experience — and a terrific way to enhance brain function after 60!
Expanding your social circle, taking time to reminisce with friends, teaching the grandkids how to write or read — how will the research advances Dr. Medina highlights affect the way you care for your aging brain? Please share in our chat!