Preserving The Function Of The Brain As We Age

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Many of us dread the thought of losing our mental faculties as we age. However, it is not uncommon for individuals to believe that our chances of succumbing to problems with mental function or dementia is pretty much down to the luck of the draw and a natural part of the ageing process. However, there is mounting evidence to suggest that, contrary to popular belief, it is possible to preserve the function of the brain as we age. For instance, research published last month in the Archives of Neurology clearly found that regular exercise is associated with a significantly reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other forms of mental impairment. While exercise does seem to help preserve brain function, it is not the only lifestyle factor which may help here. Research has demonstrated that several natural approaches might be very effective in reducing our risk of mental decline as we age.

The function of the brain is dependent on a variety of factors including the blood supply to this organ, and the nutrient and oxygen content of that blood. Because exercise stimulates the circulation, it stands to reason that it may improve blood supply to the brain, thereby enhancing mental function. The most recent research in this area published in the Archives of Neurology found that quite vigorous exercise is the most beneficial for mental function. However, there is other evidence that even low intensity exercise can have significant impact. A study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine in 1995 found that regular walking improved memory and reduced signs of dementia. The critical threshold for benefit appears to be about 1000 steps a day (roughly ½ mile).

There is mounting evidence that mental decline associated with ageing can be related to damaging, destructive molecules known as ‘free radicals’. Free radicals are quenched in the body by substances known as ‘antioxidants’, and this throws up the potential of protecting brain function by increasing antioxidant intake. In one study looking at more than 5000 individuals between the ages of 55 and 95, it was found that those consuming 2.1 mg (3,500 IU) of the antioxidant beta-carotene per day were half as likely to suffer cognitive impairment, disorientation and have difficulty in problem solving compared to those who took 0.9 mg (1,500 IU) or more per day. Another study found that taking vitamins C and E (also antioxidants) was associated with a reduced risk of dementia. I generally recommend that individuals wanting to maintain mental function in the long term take 5,000 ” 10,000 IU of beta-carotene per day, along with 600 ” 800 IU of vitamin E and 1 ” 2 g of vitamin C each day.

Over the last few years there has been growing interest in the role of a substance known as ‘homocysteine’ in dementia. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1996, higher levels of homocysteine were associated with reduced mental function. Homocysteine levels may be reduced using folic acid and vitamins B12 and B6, and higher levels of these nutrients does seem to be associated with improved mental function. In the light of current evidence, it is quite likely that taking a B-complex supplement may help to preserve brain function in the long term.

One natural agent which often helps mental function is the herb Ginkgo biloba. This herb is known to increase blood flow to the brain, and in so doing may enhance delivery of oxygen and nutrients to this organ. In one study published in 1985, 112 individuals were given 120 mg of Ginkgo biloba extract each day for a year. Use of the herb was associated with improved short-term memory, vigilance and mood. Several other studies exist which show benefits from this herb, with improvement normally being seen after about three months of treatment.

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Walking versus running

I recently read an interesting editorial in the Journal of American College of Cardiology about the relative benefits of walking and running [1]. The editorial

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