The Aging Brain

It’s a sad fact that we lose brain matter as we enter old age. This loss, while measurable, is not linear or even predictable. Through analyzing brain MRI scans of thousands of elderly people, we know that the average sixty-five-year-old is shedding brain matter at the rate of about 0.5 percent per year, and has been doing so for perhaps a decade already. The hippocampus region, that structure in the center of our brain that is partly responsible for forming and saving our memories, is shedding neurons even faster – roughly 2 percent per year, according to a Discover Magazine report entitled “This Old Brain.”

By contrast, the loss of neurons and resulting mental deterioration in people with Alzheimer’s Diesase is pronounced and rapid. It is estimated that nearly 10% of Americans over 65 have Alzheimer’s Disease, or approximately 5 million people. This number is expected to increase as the nation’s population continues to age.

The Connectome Project (HCP)

As part of a joint venture with a dozen universities and the support of the National Institutes of Health, researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), are working on the Human Connectome Project (HCP), to conduct brain scans and examinations of people up to 100 years old. The project’s purpose is to create a database of connectivity patterns and to visualize the brain’s neural networks in aging people.

Doctors and scientists have focused on detecting and countering amyloid plaques, an abnormality of important proteins in the brain that causes tangles and the death of many neurons, which is known to be one of the causes of Alzheimer’s Disease. The Human Connectome Project will collect metrics from a large group of reasonably healthy seniors and set a baseline for normal brain aging. This is important diagnostic information for our aging population.

65 Years Young

The definition of Old Age is usually considered past 65. Using this measure more than forty million people in the United States are considered old, or nearly nine percent of the poulation. It is estimated that by the year 2030 the number of elderly people will expand to over 70 million, nearly double current levels. The number of people over age 85 will also double with as many as 50% of those suffering from Alzheimer’s. The overall number of people with Alzheimer’s is expected to triple by 2050.

Our brains compensate to some degree for normal neuron loss by creating new workarounds in connectivity, and opening new neural pathways in untapped regions. Brain stimulation through learning helps a great deal. The brain’s plasticity responds to learning and problem solving, so the best brain exercise is to work on new and stimulating projects or hobbies that let your imagination work overtime.

Neuron Cocktail

Some research studies have shown that women who took estrogen for years after menopause cut their risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease in half (Kawas et al, 1997). Other studies have suggested that long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and naprosyn drugs like Adviil, Motrin and Nuprin may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, but results have been mixed (Julien et al, 2011). As with all medications, consult your physician before taking any new drugs.

This report is not a diagnosis. We hope this information can guide you toward improving your life.

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