Taking Care of Your Changing Brain
Are you challenging yourself physically and intellectually for better brain health?
by Successful Aging in Action! | 4.8.19
"A somewhat newly discovered protein, 'Noggin' (I am not kidding) is produced when you exercise, and it directly influences stem cells in your brain to make new neurons."
By: Dr. David Gobble
Almost every week, we find out something amazing about how the brain continues to develop across the lifespan. We have known for years that the brain is most receptive to learning and change while young, and assumed that as you aged, you lost most of your ability to learn and grow in mental capacity. Over the past 10 years it has become clear that the brain does lose some of its amazing flexibility of youth, but retains significant capabilities for learning and physical modification. Both neurogenesis (nerve regeneration) and neuroplasticity (rewiring pathways) can continue until the end of life. The key for us is to know about the basic science of how this happens, and what we can do to support it in our lives.
The basic science of brain growth indicates that two major things happen across the lifespan within the brain. First, your basic brain network - all those nerves that make up the brain - constantly change, depending on how they are stimulated. Lots of stimulation leads to nerves with lots of branches that connect to other nerves in the brain. This network of connections is made more dense or sparse, depending on how you interact with your environment. Second, you produce approximately 10,000 new brain cells (neurons) every day. These can replace lost neurons, add to the density of parts of the brain, or just be lost and reabsorbed and broken down, never to contribute to your mental ability.
How can you manage this critical part of your aging? How can you take advantage of this ever changing process of building and breaking down the brain? First, believe you do have control over a significant part of your mental ability over time. Then, begin (or continue) an exercise program. The brain needs blood and oxygen in large quantity, and the only way to increase the amount of blood and oxygen you pump to the brain is with exercise. In addition to feeding hungry brain cells, the extra blood and oxygen, offers another important benefit: stimulating the production of brain growth hormones, in particular Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF). This chemical acts like “Miracle Grow” for the brain, enabling existing neurons to branch and make more connections, and helps new brain cells become more permanent. A somewhat newly discovered protein, “Noggin” (I am not kidding) is produced when you exercise, and it directly influences stem cells in your brain to make new neurons. So, to speed up the replacement of lost brain cells, exercise is one of the most important things you can do.
The second thing you need to do to keep all those new brain cells, and to continue to make your existing cells branch more, is to do complex, novel things. Such activities can include: learning a language, learning to play an instrument, learning a new brain game, etc. When you make your brain intellectually uncomfortable, and do so for an extended time every day, you create the need for changing your brain. And, your brain does change by increasing the density of its interconnections, and plugging in new cells where needed.
The outcome of your efforts will produce the best brain that is possible for you. Continue to challenge yourself with both physical tasks that make your heart pump lots of blood, and challenge your brain to solve complex, novel things, and you will be the proud owner of a dense brain. That is the best science can tell us at this time, and it is the best you can do for yourself at all stages of life.
Published in the September/October 2010 Masterpiece Living Mosaic Newsletter
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