Human Brains Age Less than Previously Thought
A study by University of Cambridge researchers revealed that changes in the brain previously thought to be due to aging might actually be due to blood vessel changes. This sheds a new light on how the aging process affects our grey matter. They found that tests that relied on MRI technology could be inaccurate because they're looking at the blood vessels rather than changes in actual neuronal activity. Blood flow provides a way to indirectly measure that activity, but the study showed that it may be overestimating age-related changes.
MRI Testing Could Be Misleading
Dr. Kamen Tsvetanov, from the University's Department of Psychology, said that the research is important, given the size of the aging population. He said, "...with more and more people living into old age, it’s crucial that we understand how age affects how the brain functions. We clearly need to refine our fMRI experiments, otherwise we risk creating a misleading picture of activity in the brain as we age. Without refinement, such fMRI studies may misinterpret the effect of age as a cognitive phenomenon, when really it has more to do with our blood vessels."
Aging Brings Many Common Brain Changes
Researchers currently look at the aging brain to learn about the healthy aging process and also common disorders like Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease. According to the National Institute on Aging, we currently believe that aging causes the frontal lobe to shrink and brings changes to the ways in which neurons communicate. As arteries narrow, blood flow is affected. Free radicals cause damage, and inflammation increases. Buildup of plaques and tangles is a normal part of the brain's aging process, too, although people with Alzheimer's disease typically have a much greater buildup.
Even as it ages, the brain appears to remain flexible, sometimes calling on other regions to perform tasks when the regions that normally perform them are having problems. You can aid that flexibility and help keep your brain healthy by maintaining healthy blood pressure and blood sugar, eating fruits and vegetables, getting regular physical exercise, and engaging in tasks like puzzles which stimulate you mentally. WomensHealth.gov recommends activities such as reading, keeping up on current news, and learning to play a musical instrument as other ways to maintain your brain's health.
Beware of Danger Signs
It will take a while before researchers fully understand the brain and how to measure the effects of aging more accurately, but potential problems manifest themselves in easily recognizable symptoms. These include repeatedly asking the same question, not being able to follow directions, getting lost in an area with which you're familiar, stumbling over simple words, having trouble using common objects, and neglecting personal hygiene. If you recognize these signs in yourself or someone you know, it's time for a screening by the doctor.