The ageing brain and dementia
Cognitive decline is not an inevitable part of ageing.
Our brains remain adaptable throughout the course of our lives. In fact, there are some individuals who reach the impressive milestone of 100 years old and still have sharp minds and intact cognitive functioning.
So, what's the secret to maintaining cognitive function and protecting against dementia? Two closely-linked concepts - neuroplasticity and brain reserve.
These mechanisms play a crucial role in keeping our minds sharp and resilient. And today, we’ll be diving into the importance of brain reserve and neuroplasticity, along with examples and exercises that will show you how to harness their power to maintain a healthy brain!
Neuroplasticity: How learning physically changes the brain
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and adapt in response to new experiences and information.
It does this by forming new connections between neurons (brain cells) and strengthening existing connections as we learn and reinforce skills or experiences.
In this way, learning physically changes the brain.
Neuroplasticity also works in the opposite direction. Your brain prunes connections you don’t often use, because it wants to stay efficient - much like when you delete unwanted programs from your computer to boost its processing speed and efficiency.
Excitingly, it is these very mechanisms that make it possible to influence our brain health through healthy habits.
Studies have shown that much like a plant, the brain can shrink in size with neglect but can grow with an enriched environment.
Great examples of neuroplasticity at work:
- London Taxi Drivers
One seminal study found that London taxi drivers have a larger brain area that helps them to remember streets and places. This is thought to be due to the intense memory training required to pass the rigorous "Knowledge" test to become a taxi driver in London.
- Musicians and Brain Plasticity
Skilled musicians show anatomical and functional differences in brain regions related to movement control and auditory processing.
- Blind People and Brain Reorganisation
Sometimes, the brain of a blind person can reorganise itself to enhance other senses, such as touch and hearing! Research has shown that the visual cortex of blind individuals is activated when they are reading Braille, indicating that this area of the brain has been recruited for a non-visual task.
The importance of brain reserve
Brain reserve is the brain’s ability to compensate for damage or decline in certain areas by utilising other neural pathways.
You can think of brain reserve as a kind of safety net for the brain.
Engaging in activities that promote neuroplasticity, such as learning new skills, staying mentally active and being in an enriching environment, can help to build and maintain this safety net, potentially delaying the development of dementia.
That’s why at Five Lives we place such an importance on mentally stimulating activities and an enriching environment for building and maintaining cognitive reserve.
It's important to keep up with activities that promote neuroplasticity and cognitive reserve to prevent weakening of neural pathways.
Like a muscle that becomes weak if not exercised, neural pathways can become weaker and less efficient over time if not used, so it’s vital to keep up with activities that challenge and stimulate the brain.
Exercise for neuroplasticity: How to grow neurons and build resilience
It’s not just mental stimulation that is thought to increase cognitive reserve. The more you work out, the bigger and stronger your hippocampus gets (an area related to learning and memory), making it take longer for normal cognitive decline in ageing, and diseases like Alzheimer’s, to take effect.
Vigorous exercise (that leaves you out of breath) has been shown to promote the growth and survival of brain cells, especially in the hippocampus, at any age.
Strength training has also been shown to increase hippocampal size through a separate mechanism, suggesting the value of both types of activity in any arsenal against cognitive decline.
Here's a useful infographic about rewiring the brain, courtesy of Alta Mira:
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