The intricate function of the brain has intrigued scientists for decades. This fascinating organ is one that we seemingly take for granted, yet without effective brain function the very fabric of our day- to- day lives is significantly impeded.
The brain itself is made up of an infinite number of neurons, brains cells that communicate with each other to facilitate our movement. These neurons are actually created before we are born at the astonishing rate of 16 billion per hour. Neurons enable us to make sense of our surroundings irrespective of our culture, lifestyle or what language we speak.
As we age, the connectivity between our neurons begins to diminish with lack of activity and, it is believed, as a natural part of the ageing process. Our brain function is subsequently affected and begins to gradually decline.
Existing theories, based on extensive research, conclude that this cognitive decline begins around the age of 60 . More recently, a study carried out by the University College of London and published in the British Medical Journal suggested that the onset of a decline in brain function may begin as early as the age of 45. The study found evidence of a 3.6% decline in mental function in both men and women between the ages of 45 to 49 although the rate of decline was shown to increase significantly with age too.
Extreme cases of decline in brain function result in dementia, which may be caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia is defined as the loss of cognitive functions such as memory, reason and thought processes, to the extent that a person cannot carry out normal daily activities. Behavioral patterns are also affected.
It is thought that the cognitive decline which eventually leads to dementia, takes place over two to three decades. Diseases such as Alzheimer’s affect around 5.1 million Americans alone and suggest decline in brain function is inevitable as we age. About 10% of all Americans over 65 suffer with Alzheimer’s, but this figure increases to 47% over the age of 85. Research into the causes of Alzheimer’s and dementia is ongoing.
Cognitive decline as we age seems to increase on the basis that our brains lose their ability to respond promptly over time. Does this mean decline of brain function is inevitable and unstoppable? Not necessarily.
Some research suggests that rather than declining, our brain function undergoes qualitative changes in memory and intelligence as we age. For example, Ribot’s Law , formulated in 1881, states that older people remember past events better than recent ones.
Brain function is affected by factors such as smoking, diet , physical activity, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Health in middle age can also be a significant factor and a precursor as to whether or not our brain function will deteriorate.
Just like our bodies, our brains require exercise; there is evidence to suggest that, while genetics plays a part in cognitive decline, we can actively reduce the risk. Eating a balanced diet, doing regular exercise, engaging on a social level and participating in mentally stimulating activities all help to improve brain function.
Keeping our minds engaged in new and active challenges can also help to halt or reverse the supposed inevitable decline. These can involve taking up new studies, learning a language – like Spanish – or solving puzzles, among other activities.
Brains are most open to absorbing knowledge in our preteen years, but connections can be rebuilt at any stage of our lives. One way of halting and reversing cognitive decline is to take up new activities to begin to rebuild those brain connections.
Neurobics or brain exercises are ideal ways of doing this.
Neurobic exercises must involve using at least one of your senses in an unusual context, such as trying to get dressed with your eyes closed. They must also engage your attention, for example, placing a clock upside down and trying to work out the time. Other neurobic exercises may include using the hand you wouldn’t normally use to write or even use the telephone. The simple act of changing your regular lunch location can also have a positive stimulating effect on your brain.
Brain-based exercises also help to maintain muscle synapses. The synapses are the spaces between the neurons in the brain. The human brain is most open to learning and absorbing knowledge before we reach our teenage years. In addition, brain synapses begin to deteriorate from the age of 20.
Fortunately, brain connections can be built or rebuilt at any time in your life. Mental exercises help to keep muscle synapses intact and stable. Again, learning a new language is an ideal way of exercising your brain, together with attempting mental calculations rather than resorting to assistance from financial spreadsheets. Such exercises improve your brain’s ability to restructure events, an essential part of memory function.
Neurons in our brains communicate throughout our lives through fibers acting as antennas between the nerves in our brains. These nerves, called dendrites, assist in the growth of brain cells. Every single new activity we participate in means these dendrites can share new information and enhance brain function.
Bee the Future
What about the future? In revolutionary new research , scientists have discovered the ability of bees to reverse their mental decline when spending time nurturing their young. It is hoped that in time extensive research will enable reversal of the decline of the human brain function, but this possibility is decades away.
In the meantime, while a decline in brain function is possible without mental and physical exercise, it is not inevitable. As scientists continue to make breakthroughs in understanding brain function, we can all play our part in reducing the risk of decline.