Thursday, November 13, 2008

It's Never Too Late To Grow Your Brain

It's never too late to grow your brain - Atkinson 2008 - It's never too late to grow your brain

There's much people can do to preserve and even enhance brain function — at any age.
Related stories. With medical breakthroughs, the quest for eternal youth and longevity has never been more in reach. But we may be searching for the wrong things, according to two University of Chicago scientists. Good news: there are many easy ways to mitigate the effects aging has on your brain. It's just a matter of firming up that grey matter. From Harvard-educated medical doctor Andrew Weil to naturopath Alan Logan, the advice about nourishing the brain is consistent.

The maximum human lifespan is 122, achieved by Jeanne Calment, who lived in the south of France all her life and ate a healthy Mediterranean diet.
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Brain fitnessSome simple techniques for improving brain function.

THE SERIES Toronto journalist Judy Steed has been writing about social issues for 30 years. Last fall, she embarked on a one-year project to document the most pressing policy implications of our aging society as part of the 2008 Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy.She has visited dozens of nursing homes and interviewed hundreds of health-care workers, policy-makers and seniors to present this weeklong portrait.

MEMORY: Scientific research into neurological function has an uplifting message these days: It's never too late, and there's a lot you can do to preserve, and even improve, how your brain works
November 13, 2008 Judy SteedSpecial to the Star
"You can teach an old dog new tricks," says Dr. Donald Stuss, a leading neuroscientist. "The brain can potentially grow new cells and make new connections."
Until quite recently, medical science held that the brain, when fully developed, was "a finished deal," Stuss says. Now we know – thanks in part to the groundbreaking insights generated by Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute, where Stuss is director of research and senior scientist – that there is still much to learn.
Case in point: the brain's plasticity. The newly discovered extent of the flexibility and adaptability of our grey matter means "the brain can reorganize, brain networks can change, the brain is not a fixed, limited system," Stuss says. "The brain can generate new neurons and more brain regions can be recruited, brought into play, to help us as we get older."
This knowledge – gained through imaging technologies that show us the brain in action, letting us watch different regions of the brain light up, enabling the measurement of magnetic changes in neurons – has revolutionized scientists' approach to the brain, transformed medical education, and given us hope of delaying, if not preventing, brain dysfunction.
"Different areas of the brain can take over when others are damaged," Stuss says. "The brain can recruit capacity from other parts of the brain."
To take advantage of these incredible new findings, we have to change how we age.
We have to learn how to stimulate our brain in order to keep it healthy into advanced old age.
These are the odds: over the age of 85, between a third and a half of the population will develop dementia, in the present circumstances.
This is what longevity can mean: long years of not knowing what's going on, not knowing who you are.
Aging boomers may boast about their prospects for unprecedented longevity, but the harsh truth is that you can't enjoy old age if you haven't got the healthy brain to go with it.
At Extendicare Lakefield – a typical Ontario nursing home, just outside Peterborough – 86 is the average age of admission, and 85 per cent of residents have dementia.
But it doesn't have to be that way.
That's where the astounding new brain research comes in. The future of neuroscience lies in the exploration of brain regeneration.
Given the demographics – all the aging baby boomers living in fear of dementia, eager to be the first generation to benefit from the new research – and all the money flowing into brain research at advanced scientific facilities around the world, it's no wonder brain researchers can barely contain their excitement.
Thanks to the revolution in brain imaging, modern neuroscience is poised to penetrate the ultimate mysteries of the brain: how memory functions, what causes dementia, how brain deterioration can be prevented.
"There's a whole host of new therapies coming down the pipe," says Dr. Max Cynader, director of the Brain Research Centre at University of British Columbia. "We're the lucky ones."
We're in the right place at the right time, if we live long enough.
Certainly Cynader's Brain Research Centre is benefiting from the unprecedented passion for figuring out the brain. His centre has received upwards of $37 million since 2007 from government and private sources, enough to recruit some of the finest minds in the world.
"Health is more than the absence of disease," Cynader says. "What mechanisms in the brain enable us to age well? How can we avoid neuro-degenerative dysfunction?"
These questions signal a profound shift: from studying advanced brain failure – people with Alzheimer's disease – scientists are turning their attention to preventing dysfunction, supporting brain health, lowering the risks of brain disease – just as we've learned how to prevent heart disease.
After 25 years studying Alzheimer's disease, Dr. Gary Small of UCLA's world renowned Brain Research Institute, is embracing the shift. "It's easier to protect the healthy brain and treat it earlier, rather than trying to treat the brain already damaged (by dementia)."
Small is at the forefront of another development in brain research: "the digital divide," in which "digital natives" – kids who've grown up with technology – are worlds apart from "digital immigrants" — older folks.
Small's results, recorded in a new book entitled iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, are startling.
For instance, he found that young men who play violent video games have "an impaired ability to recognize human facial expressions."
Our use of technology, and the way it "distracts from our human experience of face-to-face contact," he asserts, is having a profound impact on the actual wiring of the brain.
More proof of the brain's plasticity – and more uncharted territory for brain researchers to explore

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