Source | Linked In | Dr. Daniel Amen | Double Board-Certified Psychiatrist, Ten-Time New York Times best-selling author
Mental decline is normal with age, but it’s not inevitable. Increasing age is the most powerful risk factor for memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease. Our research shows that the brains of most people typically become less and less active with age, blood flow drops and we become much more vulnerable to memory problems, brain fog and depression.
I recently met a woman who told me that now that she is 60-years-old, she doesn’t want to have to worry any more about what she eats or exercising. She was done with that part of her life. If that is you, you just want to make sure you’re ok with the consequences of having an older functioning brain — less energy, brain fog, depression and bad decisions.
As we age we have less room for error if we want to stay vibrant and healthy. To be your best and rescue your memory, you have to be vigilant for your health.
Since the 2008 recession, many people who thought they could retire, now have to work longer. The average age of retirement went from 57 to 62-years-old. But if your brain is not healthy, you’ll have trouble competing against younger talent. Don’t let that be you. Plus, there is a silver lining from working longer. A study of nearly 500,000 people found that for each additional year of work, the risk of getting dementia is reduced by 3.2%. Working keeps us physically active, socially connected and mentally stimulated, all things known to help prevent cognitive decline.
My father, 88, still goes to work 5 days a week. He owns a chain of grocery stores and is active on the board of Unified Grocers, a 4-billion-dollar company, where he was the long-term chairman. He goes to work because he says all of his friends who retire die or lose their minds. It seems there may be something to his thinking. Of course, if you actively engage your brain in retirement it can be one of the best times of your life.
But never forget that your brain is like a muscle, you have to use it or it will get smaller and smaller. When you stop learning, your brain starts dying.
Before my father got healthy at the age of 86, after a health crisis that I wrote about in The Brain Warrior’s Way, he had what I termed “the old person’s speech,” which goes something like this:
I am too old.
I am too tired.
Leave me alone.
Why should I care anymore?
I’ve done it this way my whole life, I cannot change now?
I can’t give up … sugar, bread, vodka, chips, you name it.
I’d rather get Alzheimer’s disease than give up sugar, wine, chips, you name it.
Your brain is very powerful and brings to life what you visualize. Your self-talk and words are the movie script your brain plays out. If you think you are old and slow, you will feel old and slow.
Mechanisms for Aging
There are several recognized mechanisms for aging, including lowered blood flow, inflammation, higher blood sugar levels (see subsequent chapters), excessive calorie intake and excessive production of free radicals and oxidative stress. I want to spend time getting you to care about your mitochondria, and keeping free radical production, oxidative stress, iron, AGEs (Advanced Gylcation End Products), social isolation and lack of stimulation under control.
Power Up Your Mitochondria
Your brain is the most expensive real estate in your body, using about 20-30% of the calories you consume. Inside your cells are tiny power plants called mitochondria that produce energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). Different types of human cells have varying numbers of mitochondria. Red blood cells don’t have any mitochondria, liver cells can have up to 2,000 mitochondria, while cells that require the most energy (heart, retina and brain) brain cells can have up to 10,000 mitochondria per cell. The prefrontal cortex (focus, forethought, judgment and impulse control) has the most densely populated mitochondria. When they are healthy the mitochondria crank out ATP and you feel energized; when they are inefficient or damaged you feel tired, foggy-headed and old. If your mitochondria stop making energy, even for a few minutes (think cyanide poisoning), you die.
Aging is the most common cause of mitochondrial dysfunction. Estimates are they decrease in efficiency by about 50% from your 30s to your 70s, which is could help explain why diseases of aging, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease tend to occur later in life.
When the mitochondria converts oxygen into energy, highly reactive molecules called free radicals are made, which is normal; but when free radicals are produced in excessive amounts they can damage our DNA, cells, tissues and organs. When our free radicals outnumber our antioxidant defenses against them, this is called oxidative stress. Think of exposure to high amounts of free radicals, like the way rust attacks the metal on a car, attacking your cells, damaging your DNA and accelerating aging.
Cigarettes, trans fats, excessive sun exposure, charred meats, pesticides, mercury, liver dysfunction, high iron, excessive exercise, abnormal hormone levels all can generate free radicals and promote oxidative stress, which further feeds into chronic inflammation, cell and tissue death, and progressive loss of function.
Iron loves free radicals and excessive iron in your body promotes oxidative stress and internal rusting. Ferritin is a measure of iron stores. High levels are associated with inflammation, insulin resistance and neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Low levels are associated with anemia, restless legs, ADHD, low motivation and fatigue. Women often have lower iron stores than men, due to blood loss from menstruation.
AGEs (Advanced Glycation End Products)
I’ve always been amused by this acronym. It clearly teaches us that sugar is associated with accelerated aging. Glycation is a fancy word for what happens when sugar reacts with proteins and fats to form sticky molecules (AGEs) that gum up our biological systems and fast-tracks aging, by increasing free radicals and inflammation. When blood sugar is high and sugar molecules cannot properly get into cells for energy production, they stick to proteins on red blood cells and decrease circulation through your blood vessels. This is one reason why diabetics, who have high blood sugar levels, have problems with their eyes, kidneys and their toes. AGEs form when you caramelize onions in a frying pan, which tastes great, but imaging the sticky-gooey stuff running through blood vessels. AGEs are involved with causing wrinkles in your skin and damage to your cells. They are also involved with heart disease, eye, liver and pancreatic disease and memory loss.