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.

Parasites, bacteria, and viral infections. Parasites and other microbes enter the body and often excrete toxins to increase their chance of survival. These toxins change blood acidity, allowing the parasite to multiply in a perfect host environment. At the same time, toxic excretions can cross the blood-brain barrier and create inflammation in the brain, affecting your concentration and comprehension and creating brain fog. These microorganisms are often diagnosed as intermittent or chronic infections, HIV, tuberculosis, Epstein-Barr virus, Lyme disease, or cytomegalovirus (CMV).

Degenerative disorders. Serious illnesses associated with aging (including multiple sclerosis, neurodegenerative illness, Huntington's disease, ALS, and Pick's disease), glaucoma, vascular diseases, stroke (the second leading cause of MCI), brain tumors, obesity, organ diseases (including endocrine, liver, and kidney), blood sugar imbalances, or hormonal loss can also affect your ability to think clearly. Anyone with a brain chemical imbalance will experience physical changes. Diseases of the body also affect brain function.

Physical trauma. This category can include recurrent head trauma, concussions, whiplash, battering, sports injuries, or injury due to child abuse, car accidents, or falling. Brain trauma has a cumulative effect: Each event builds on the previous one, directly affecting memory and cognition in both the short and long term. Even minor traumas add toward dementia. All the hits we received in our youth -- from fighting with siblings to falling off a bike -- pile up and later affect us, long after the physical bruises have healed. I can guarantee that everyone who is diagnosed with cognitive decline has experienced some of them.

For example, 75 percent of all people will have a mild concussion at some point during their life and will unknowingly develop severe brain chemical loss that will affect their thinking and personality. A concussion can be caused by a direct blow to the head, face, or neck, or elsewhere on the body, that leads to an impulsive force transmitted to the head. Concussions typically result in a rapid loss of neurological function that is short-lived and resolves spontaneously. While your memory might be temporarily impaired, the physical structure of the brain remains intact. We know that this is true because in concussion, there are no abnormalities seen on standard neuroimaging studies. However, just because that is no structural damage, this doesn't mean that a concussion should be taken lightly. What's more, concussions and other head injuries also affect hormone levels, which regulate brain processing speed. Even minor whiplashes in which you don't lose consciousness can still affect your hormone production.

If you have been in an accident either recently or in the distant past that caused any of the following symptoms, let your doctor know. Even a fall, accident, or trauma that happened 10 to 20 years ago can be affecting your brain chemical balance today. Typically, you would experience symptoms immediately following the accident, but they may persist to some degree to this day.

The most popular misconception is that a recent concussion can be identified only if there was a loss of consciousness. Any of the following symptoms can be a result of a head injury and can contribute to cognitive decline, now or later:

  • Amnesia (ranging from short-term blackouts to long-term loss of memory of a traumatic event)
  • Behavioral changes (e.g., irritability)
  • Depression
  • Feeling in a fog
  • Headache
  • Increased emotionality
  • Sleep disturbances or daytime drowsiness
  • Slowed reaction times
  • Unconsciousness

Psychiatric disorders. Anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, panic attacks, and other similar disorders are conditions resulting from an unbalanced brain. These conditions exacerbate cognitive decline and at the same time are its earliest symptoms.

Sleep disturbances. Insomnia and other sleep disorders are serotonin-related conditions resulting from an unbalanced brain. Just as with the psychiatric disorders above, it's interesting to note that these conditions exacerbate cognitive decline and at the same time are its earliest symptoms.

Toxic exposures. Lead, aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury can affect brain speed, IQ, memory, and attention and alter personality and temperament. And it's not just current exposures that you have to worry about: Past exposures from as early as childhood can still be affecting your health and how you think. For example, an exposure to lead before and immediately after birth can damage short-term as well as long-term memory. This disruption of neuronal activity can alter the developmental processes of synapse formation and result in a less efficient brain with cognitive deficits by which you might still be affected. Chronic exposure to lead may result in poisoning that presents symptoms including fatigue, depression, and confusion. Other heavy metals, such as mercury, aluminum, cadmium, and tin, affect chemical synaptic transmission in the brain and the peripheral and central nervous system. The brains of people with Alzheimer's disease have been found to contain higher-than-normal concentrations of mercury, to which their primary exposure was dental fillings.

The good news is that through simple blood work and, if necessary, neuroimaging such as PET scans and MRIs, you can determine quickly and easily whether you are carrying a toxic load. Even better, you can treat these problems with naturopathic programs, including making small changes to your diet.

Vitamin and mineral deficiencies. People with MCI are often deficient in thiamin (vitamin B1), niacin (B3), pyridozine (B6), vitamin B12, nicotinic acid, and zinc. Low levels of these and other vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in the diet can contribute to cognitive difficulties such as poor judgment or memory loss. Recent studies show that the progression toward Alzheimer's can be slowed or even reversed by taking the proper amounts of antioxidants, either through making better food choices or through supplementation. It's also important to know that excessive alcohol consumption depletes the body of crucial vitamins and minerals, which is why it's virtually impossible to try to balance good habits with bad ones.

TEMPLATEReadMoreBookExcerpts.jpg Adapted from Younger Brain, Sharper Mind: A 6-Step Plan for Preserving and Improving Memory and Attention at Any Age From America's Brain Doctor (Rodale Books)

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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