6 Ways to Age-Proof Your Brain

A British study has discovered new information about how the brain ages. Turns out, it's a lot like apples—one cell can spoil the whole basket.

The researchers conducted studies on mice that indicated brain cells might age much like skin cells do, with one aging skin cell affecting many of its neighbors. The researchers found that aging neurons produced several substances, including free radicals and other molecules that can produce inflammation, alter DNA, and damage nearby cells.

Scientists previously thought that neuron cells aged differently since, unlike skin cells, they can't divide. If, in fact, they do affect neighbor cells, this might open up new understandings about how brain disease occurs.

Researchers are careful to point out that mouse studies don't always translate to human studies, but they're optimistic this new information might help to understand and prevent brain diseases like dementia, Alzheimer's disease, motor neuron disease, or hearing loss.

While this particular study doesn't point out direct connections between maintaining healthy neurons and preventing premature aging of brain cells, it does provide opportunities to discuss what it takes to keep the brain healthy.

The Alzheimer's Association says there are steps you can take to promote brain health:

1. Stay physically active

Physical exercise is essential for maintaining good blood flow to the brain as well as to encourage growth of new brain cells. It also can significantly reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and diabetes, and thereby protect against those risk factors for Alzheimer's and other dementias.

2. Adopt a brain-healthy diet

Research suggests that having high cholesterol may contribute to stroke and brain cell damage. A low-fat, low-cholesterol diet is advisable. And there is growing evidence that a diet rich in dark vegetables and fruits, which contain antioxidants, may help protect brain cells.

3. Remain socially active

Social activity not only makes physical and mental activity more enjoyable, it can reduce stress levels, which helps maintain healthy connections among brain cells.

4. Boost cognitive skills

Mentally-stimulating activities strengthen brain cells and the connections between them and may even create new nerve cells.

5. Meditate

In addition to other stress reduction techniques, many health experts and scientists recommend meditation for helping maintain brain health. People who live with chronic stress release high levels of stress hormones, which can lead to impaired memory. Harvard researchers studied men and women trained in mindfulness meditation and discovered that after eight weeks, participants' brain scans showed an increased density of gray matter (which correlates with memory function), compared with a control group.

6. Get help for addictions

Smoking, substance abuse, and alcoholism are also major risk factors that can affect the health of brain neurons. Your best bet is to avoid smoking and recreational drug use altogether and practice moderation when drinking alcohol.

While there is no guarantee that living a brain-healthy lifestyle will ensure crystal-clear brain function later in life, it's likely to increase the odds. Plus, you're almost guaranteed to enjoy better physical health while you're aging.

Liesa Harte, MD, reviewed this article.



Howard, Beth. "Age Proof Your Brain". AARP: Feb/Mar 2012

"One aging brain cell can affect entire brain, study finds". NBC News.

"Brain Health". Alzheimer's Association.