Sunday, October 24, 2010

** The Secret Life of the Grown Up Brain by Barbara Strauch

There is a silver lining to the dark cloud of your aging brain. You'll perform better and longer than you thought possible, after Strauch shares what science knows about aging brains.
Key takeaways:
  • Leverage your knowledge, and realize that the older you are the slower you will learn new tasks.
  • Your brain is going to slowly waste away. The more interconnected it is by education and challenge, the longer you will delay the negative symptoms of this fact of life (and death).
  • Exercise will help your brain stay healthy and young.
  • Diet may also help, but not for the reason you originally thought, and it may explain why you have to eat the whole food, not just pop a pill. Surprisingly, it's the toxins in the food that may be helping you.

Wisdom proven
Researchers found that 40-60 year olds did better on test of the most important and complex cognitive skills than the same group of people had done when in their 20s... In 4 out of 6 categories tested - vocabulary, verbal memory, spatial orientation, and inductive reasoning - people performed best between the ages of 40 to 65. p14

Faster doesn't always mean better
In areas of processing speed, younger flight controllers did better. But in 2 important cognitive areas - visual orientation, and dealing with ambiguity, - older controllers did just as well. Studies of pilots find the same thing... Older pilots took longer to catch on to the new tests, but they outperformed younger pilots when it came time to doing what was most important - keeping planes where they were supposed to be. p21

Empty nest syndrome is a hoax
Every year incoming freshman to college say that their parents must be devastated by their absence. But nothing could be further from the truth. Researchers have found that the parents are doing just fine. p60

Why you can't remember what's his face's name
If our brains are doing so well in middle age, then why do names go missing in the first place? Researchers speculate that it is because of the way words are stored and organized in the brain. The sound of a word - phonology- and the meaning of the word are stored in different areas and the connection between them weakens as we age. And since the link between a name and a person is arbitrary, this weak link doesn't give us much to go on... At the same time we remember well what a person does, that's because a person's occupation embodies a wide range of information that's stashed all over the brain, and can be retrieved through various paths. p72

Education; instant gratification's mortal enemy
The one social factor that researchers agree is consistently linked to longer lives in every country where it has been studied is education. It is more important than race; it obliterates any effects of income. Education may somehow teach people to delay gratification, a habit that might mean you give up that cookie or cigarette and instead take a walk. p112

Education doesn't ward off disease, it just helps cope with the symptoms
Was it simply that those with better brains sought more education and then developed even better brains as a result? Or were those who were inclined to become more educated simply people who had better nutrition while young or had lives that were generally more protected from toxins that could harm the brain?... Researchers found that those with less than 8 years of education were twice as likely to become demented and those who had even lower education were 3 times as likely. The only way these folks differed was in their education... In two other studies, demented patients who had higher education declined and died faster AFTER being diagnosed, but this diagnosis occurs later in life on average. While on the surface that seems counterintuitive. It seems that the education doesn't stop the ravages of Alzheimer's or other brain wasting diseases at all, rather education provides more neural interconnections such that the brain can better cope with the damage caused by aging and disease without marked overall decrease in performance, until the disease progression finally overwhelms the brain. Then the decline is steep and quick. It suggest that those who can call on more brain power can hold back the outward signs of the disease. Then by the time the disease becomes outwardly evident, its affects are much further along and those patients get worse and die faster. But these patients have less time to live with the effects and that seems like a good thing. p113-4

Exercise helps your memory, but will it help me remember to exercise?
Exercising mice created twice as many new brain cells as non-exercisers... Exercise was not only a potent producer of new neurons, but also seemed to selectively target the brain's dentate gyrus - the middle of the brain's memory machinery - an area that appears to decline with the normal aging process. This means that exercise may, in fact, help boost our memories as we age. p128

Brain food is real, at least for rats
Test tube experiments have shown that brain tissue taken from older animals is more sensitive to oxidative stressors than similar tissue from young animals. By middle age, there are already indicators of increased inflammation in the brains of animals. But food seems to help. Older rats fed a diet of spinach learned new tasks much faster than those fed plain rat chow. Rats fed blueberries, spinach, and spirulina had less brain cell loss and improved recovery of movement following a stroke. p156

And for dogs too!
Beagles fed a diet of fruits, vegetables and vitamins and allowed to exercise could, even in old age, learn new tricks faster than other dogs. The dogs that did the best had their diets fortified mostly with anti-oxidants, including tomatoes, carrots, citrus, spinach, and vitamins E & C. p157

Nietzsche was right! That what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger
Reducing calories activates mild stress that upregulates growth factors that protect cells against aging and disease. And this may very well be how antioxidants are really working as well. Researchers think it is the TOXINS in such things as the skin of a grape, which is there to ward off insects giving us resveratrol, that produce this mild stress that prompts beneficial repair... The benefit of fruits and vegetables might not be because of the antioxidants and vitamins, but because the toxins are producing mild stress. p165 - See Mark Mattson, Chief of Neurosciences at National Institute on Aging.

40 really is the new 20!
Stanford economist, John Shoven came up with entirely new way calculating when we are over the hill. He argues that our true age should be determined not by years, but by years left to live... That means if you have less than a 1% risk of dying within a year, you can consider yourself 'young', and you're not old until you have a 4% chance of dying within a year. In between, you're middle aged... Under this interpretation men don't become old until 73, and women until 78. Middle age starts at 58 for men, and 63 for women. p195