Updated: Oct 26
What if I told you that you have control over how your brain ages, would you believe me?
No one is free from aging. As is to be expected and natural, as the years go by, the human body changes and ages. Accepting aging implies accepting the experience as it is, in the present moment, with a kind and compassionate attitude, with openness and curiosity. This implies no longer struggling between "the way things are" and "the way you wish they were." However, accepting aging does not mean resigning yourself to it. Rather, it means that you can act to promote healthy aging by reducing its possible negative impact on your functionality and well-being.
The brain aging
Our brain is incredibly adaptable, it is able to form new connections as we acquire new knowledge and experiences - it exhibits what we call neuroplasticity. This plasticity is vital for healthy brain function throughout life, it is the key to the proper functioning of communication, emotion, and some cognitive processes such as memory. However, like other organs, our brain is subject to aging and will lose its plasticity over time.
Can we somehow have an influence on the way our brain ages? The answer is: yes, we can.
Scientific research has identified some factors that contribute to healthier brain aging. First, eating a healthy diet has been identified as one of the factors that protect us from pathological brain aging.
Eating foods that help prevent inflammatory processes in the body is essential (e.g., avocado, extra virgin olive oil, nuts, vegetables, blueberries). A proper sleep hygiene, that is, adopting behaviors that increase the quality of sleep (e.g., having a regular schedule for going to sleep and waking up, sleeping in a warm and relaxing environment, avoiding excessive alcohol and tobacco intake before bed, avoiding the use of electronic devices before bed) contributes to good brain functioning. Recent studies have shown that during sleep, some cells present in the brain (i.e., glia cells) perform a function of cleaning up harmful "toxic material," including the type of proteins that develop in people with dementia. It has also been found that during sleep, new connections between neurons are established, and knowledge acquired during the day is consolidated.
Physical exercise also plays an important role in the field of brain health: it not only provides good skeletal-muscular and cardiorespiratory fitness but can also help improve cognitive fitness. It is known that physical activity promotes the formation of certain proteins that act on some neurons, helping their survival, and that are a factor in the development of new neurons (i.e., neurogenesis) and new connections between neurons. From this we can infer that the lack of physical exercise corresponds to fewer neurons and fewer connections between them. Some studies also indicate that physical activity contributed to a healthier brain aging, being associated with a reduction in the risk of developing dementia by about 60%. In addition to these factors, tobacco and alcohol consumption, as well as cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes, increase the risk of pathological brain aging.
Along with the factors presented above, and although this relationship may seem less obvious, socialization is also essential for the proper functioning of the brain.
The human being is a social being, who evolved from socialization and interaction with peers. Accordingly, science has shown that social contact prevents pathological brain aging by promoting the development of certain chemicals in the brain that, in turn, slow cognitive decline and help protect against the development of dementia. It should be noted that while research on the impact of socialization on brain aging is growing, more research is needed to better understand the nature of these relationships.
The certainty we have is that several behaviors and attitudes contribute to healthy brain aging, and therefore it is these behaviors that we should promote. However, in recent years, the pandemic has brought numerous challenges, leaving, for example, most of the population into a condition of social isolation, which has strongly contributed to the development of physical and mental health difficulties and problems. Although social contact is now more easily established, the impact of the reality experienced during the pandemic remains. Thus, at the present time, it is important to promote self-care behaviors and attitudes in the population, which allow the promotion of healthy cerebral aging, namely through socialization.
Evans, I. E., Martyr, A., Collins, R., Brayne, C., & Clare, L. (2019). Social isolation and cognitive function in later life: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Alzheimer's disease, 70(s1), 119-144.
Kelly, M. E., Duff, H., Kelly, S., McHugh Power, J. E., Brennan, S., Lawlor, B. A., & Loughrey, D. G. (2017). The impact of social activities, social networks, social support and social relationships on the cognitive functioning of healthy older adults: A systematic review. Systematic Reviews, 6(1), 1-18.
Felix, C., Rosano, C., Zhu, X., Flatt, J. D., & Rosso, A. L. (2021). Greater social engagement and greater gray matter microstructural integrity in brain regions relevant to dementia. The Journals of Gerontology, 76(6), 1027-1035.
Piolatto, M., Bianchi, F., Rota, M., Marengoni, A., Akbaritabar, A., & Squazzoni, F. (2022). The effect of social relationships on cognitive decline in older adults: an updated systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal cohort studies. BMC public health, 22(1), 1-14.