You're Getting Dumber as You Age: Here's How to Slow the Decline

043660_YBSM(1).JPG A healthy brain processes information as a wave (via electrical impulses) and as a particle (via the brain chemicals) at a fast pace along the neuronal highway. Think of "the wave" that goes around a sports stadium during a football game. Every person in the stadium represents a single cell in the brain that passes along a ball of information to the next cell. As each person jumps to their feet and lifts their hands above their head, they pass a particle of information along. If the timing is off, the wave in the stadium simply stops. In your brain, if the cells cannot pick up all the particles of information, they get dropped and brain speed slows, the information delivery becomes unbalanced and out of sync, and your cognition begins to fade.

The difference between a resourceful mind and senility is only 100 milliseconds of brain speed. We react to light in 50 milliseconds, recognize sound in 100 milliseconds, and think in 300 milliseconds. By the time thinking slows down to 400 milliseconds, we can no longer process logical thoughts. The neurons no longer fire off information fast enough for the rest of the brain to respond, and new information will not become embedded in memory.

Typically, we lose seven to 10 milliseconds -- a tenth of a second -- of brain speed per decade from age 20 on, which means that aging alone causes us to lose brain cells and processing speed. This minute change is very difficult to notice, even for the most tuned-in individuals, because aging occurs at a constant rate.

Imagine that you are sitting inside a windowless train, and the train is speeding along at 2,000 miles per hour. Now imaging that you are on the same train, but you are not moving at all. Would you feel any different? The answer is no. Without any external reference points, such as passing trees, and without acceleration, any constant speed will feel exactly the same to you -- whether that speed is nothing or the speed of light. In a sense, our brain operates as if we are sitting in a windowless train traveling at the constant speed of aging. Without a reference point, no brain -- not even a smart one -- would be able to determine its own aging.

While we can't recognize a change in brain speed, many people do know that something has changed with their thinking. And if you sense that you are not as smart or quick as you used to be, you know it is an uncomfortable feeling. Some refer to it as "brain fog," because they know that they used to feel smarter but the thoughts are just not coming together as quickly. What's happening is that when brain processing speed declines, you are literally thinking slower and remembering less. New information that you are presented with does not "stick" in your mind, and older memories are harder to recall. At the same time, a decline in brain chemical production causes brain cell death. Fewer neurons mean an additional decrease in the capacity to retain information. What's more, not only does an aging brain think slower, but there is a separation between thinking and then doing. You know that you have things you need to do, but you can't quite figure out how to get them done, or you forget to take care of them. Once you bump into these problems repeatedly, you need to start rebalancing your brain.

THE CAUSES OF MILD COGNITIVE IMPAIRMENT

Aging is the number one cause of mild cognitive impairment (MCI). As you get older, your brain develops chemical imbalances. If you do not act to fix them, you are actually leaving your brain and your body open to get sicker.

What's more, there are hundreds of other reasons for your brain to tip toward dementia. Some of these factors are directly linked to specific brain chemical deficiencies that occur with aging or illness. Others are connected to lifestyle or environment.

Addiction. Any type of addition, including to alcohol, street drugs (marijuana, cocaine, crystal meth, heroin, Ecstasy, nexus, ketamine, opium, Rohypnol, crack, hallucinogens, inhalants), overeating, gambling, or even shopping, is related to imbalanced dopamine. What's more, addictive substances directly cause cognitive failures. For example, alcoholics are notorious for experiencing blackouts, actual memory gaps that occur even when they are conscious. Most illegal street drugs tamper with memory, cloud judgment, limit attention, and increase forgetfulness.

Prescription medications. Many prescription medications affect cognitive abilities, even if you are not addicted to them. Some medications that reverse bad health and rebalance the brain can also cause brain fog, or worse. They may blur vision, increase fatigue, alter depth perception, make you see or hear things that aren't there, increase or decrease reaction time, and detract from focus and concentration. Common prescription drugs that affect thinking include medications that treat allergies, pain, diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol, ulcers, depression, anxiety disorders, and insomnia. Many of these are known to cause fatigue and daytime drowsiness. Tranquilizers, sedatives, and sleeping pills slow down the central nervous system, causing diminished reaction time, and impair your ability to concentrate. Antihistamines slow down reaction time and affect your overall coordination.

Compare the following list of drug types to your current prescriptions to see if what you are taking may be affecting your thinking, and then speak with your doctor to determine whether alternatives with fewer mental side effects are available:

  • Alcohol-containing medications
  • Amphetamines
  • Antibiotics
  • Anticholinergics
  • Antidepressants
  • Antidiarrheal medications
  • Antihistamines
  • Antinausea medications
  • Antipsychotics
  • Antiseizure medications
  • Anxiety medications
  • Barbiturates
  • Blood pressure medications
  • Blood sugar medications
  • Caffeine-containing medications
  • Pain medications
  • Parkinson's disease medications
  • Sedatives
  • Sleep medications
  • Stimulants
  • Tranquilizers
  • Ulcer medications

Over-the-counter medications. Decongestants can cause drowsiness, anxiety, and dizziness. Cold and cough medicines, antihistamines, pain relievers, diuretics, and remedies that prevent heartburn, nausea, or motion sickness can cause drowsiness or dizziness. What's more, combining prescription medications with over-the-counter remedies can also cause cognitive problems. Speak with your local pharmacist to determine if any of these remedies is affecting your thinking.

Presented by

Eric Braverman

Eric R. Braverman is a professor of integrative medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and the director of the PATH Medical Center and PATH Foundation.

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