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Making Full Use of a Vintage Brain

You don't know less in your old age; you probably know more. During your advanced years, however, your information-processing speed slows down. Don't worry, though — your long-term memory remains intact, and your understanding of what you already know is broader, more thoughtful, and wiser than during your early adulthood.

Here's more good news: You were probably taught in school that, at birth, you have all the brain cells you'll ever have, right? From then on (the lesson continued), you lose about 10,000 brain cells every day — and even more if you drink alcohol.

Well, it turns out that the old wisdom isn't true. The situation isn't that bleak. You do have an opportunity for dendrite growth. Dendrites are the part of your neurons that branch out to pick up information from other neurons. What you do with your brain determines what happens to it.

Now, for the not-so-good news: Your brain loses its vitality and size as you age. The levels of neurotransmitters — including various hormones, such as melatonin, testosterone, and estrogen — decline. Your arteries and capillaries grow less flexible and, in some cases, become clogged, hindering the flow of vital oxygen and nutrients to your brain. Uncontrolled stress makes matters only worse.

Reducing stress, keeping the blood flowing

If you're like many people, one of your objectives as you age is to retain your power to learn and recall — maybe even get better, if you can. If that's part of your agenda, here are two things to start doing today:

  • Reduce your stress level.
  • Improve your blood circulation.

Stress kills memory. Hormones, such as cortisol, are destructive to your brain if you stay stressed. As you age, cortisol (a stress hormone) has a particularly destructive effect on your brain's ability to adjust to new learning and memory. Dendritic branching and axonal sprouting , which support new memories, get retarded when your body has to deal with stress.

As you age, the blood flow to your brain reduces. This reduction means that your neurons are provided with less life-sustaining support. Your blood brings not only the glucose, which acts as fuel to your brain, but also the amino acids that are synthesized into neurotransmitters. If your diet is high in saturated fats or if you drink alcohol or smoke, count on your blood flow to be slow.

The reduction in blood flow to your brain doesn't necessarily happen at the same pace as your neighbor down the street who's the same age. You have some control over it. One of the better things you can do to keep your blood flowing is to exercise on a regular basis. You'll not only do your heart a big favor, but you'll also help clear out cholesterol from your arteries and increase the longevity of the elasticity of your arteries and capillaries. You may want to consider taking a modest amount of gingko, which dilates blood vessels.

Don't take gingko if you're also taking a blood-thinning agent such as aspirin.

To minimize stress and keep the blood flowing:

  • Exercise. Take regular walks, swim, bike, or work out in the gym — whatever fits your style.
  • Join a yoga or meditation class.
  • Eat a balanced diet. Keep the saturated-fat level low.
  • Minimize consumption of alcohol.
  • Don't smoke.
  • Consider taking modest doses of gingko (as long as you're not taking a blood thinning agent).
  • Avoid high-stress activities, such as working as a trader at the New York Stock Exchange.
  • Learn relaxation techniques and use them on a regular basis.

Free radicals also begin to take their toll as you age, because free radicals break down tissue and kill cells.

The main targets of free radicals in your brain are the myelin sheaths. The myelin sheaths consist of the oily substance that covers your axons to improve conduction. Axons are the part of your neurons that send information. They help your neurons fire at maximum velocity. When free radicals eat away the myelin, your axons lose their conductivity. This lack of conductivity means that your brain doesn't process information as quickly. Memories are both harder to form and harder to recall.

The other big targets of free radicals are your dendrites. Dendrites are the part of your neurons that receive information from other neurons. Free radicals cause your dendrites to thin out, leaving your brain less able to process information in ways it had before. You find yourself forgetting jokes that you were once able to tell with great punch.

One way to combat free radicals is to consume foods that are rich in antioxidants. You can also supplement your diet with antioxidant vitamins, such as C and E.

Compensating for your graying senses

As you pass your prime physically, you may experience some loss of your senses. Most people do — the eyesight fades, the hearing grows less acute, and muscles lose their flex. Sound familiar? These losses are facts of life for older people, and they're all perfectly normal.

Unfortunately, the fading competence of your senses makes it more difficult to pick up the information that warrants attention and remembering. This means you may not get all the information that others get and, therefore, remember less.

With all this sensory dulling and dampening of attention, other people may misread your deficits as a decline in your overall intelligence. Make sure that you do everything you can to keep your eyesight strong, your hearing acute, and your muscles in tone — so that people don't get the wrong idea!

Maximize your sensory ability by compensating for your deficits. For instance:

  • If your hearing is fading, wear a hearing aid.
  • If your eyesight is on the blink, wear glasses.
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