Posted on 25/03/2020
Have you ever come out of a shopping centre and forgotten where you’ve parked your car? Or walked into a room at home and forgotten what it was that you went in there to do?
If so, you’ve probably laughed these experiences off as being part of the “ageing process”, but in the back of your mind there may well be a nagging disquiet that experiences such as these may be an early sign of more difficult things to come.
That’s perfectly understandable – and it’s important to be mindful of the ways in which we can take better care of our neurological wellbeing – but it’s equally important to realise that memory loss is a very common experience that typically becomes more noticeable as we reach our 40’s, 50’s and beyond.
It’s well known that work stress, poor nutrition, too many late nights, and other lifestyle stresses can often combine to undermine our ability to remember things, so it’s much more likely that periodic symptoms of memory loss are simply related to having too much to remember in our busy, fast paced lives rather than being a sign of a clinical condition such as Alzheimer’s Disease.
Nonetheless, experiences such as these do raise an interesting question that is relevant to us all:
Is there anything we can do to keep our brains functioning at their best throughout our life and minimise any cognitive decline we may experience as we age?
Thankfully, there is!
Exciting discoveries in the fields of neuroscience and molecular biology are challenging many long held – but essentially negative – assumptions about the ageing body and brain.
For example, for many years it was thought that the body could not make new brain cells, and that mental decline was an inevitable process that occurred as the “reservoir” of brain cells that we are born with gradually died off during the course of our lives.
Then, in 1998 scientists demonstrated for the first time that new brain cells are generated in adult humans , providing credible evidence that if you continue to stimulate and challenge your brain it can continue to grow.
Further research also revealed that “learning” and “memory” are not just functions of how many brain cells a person may have, but are strongly associated with the number of connections taking place between these cells, bringing with it an understanding that mental decline is not due so much to the steady death of nerve cells, but rather results from a thinning out of the connections that allow communication between nerve cells to take place.
This research reinforces the importance of the principle of “use it or lose it”.
Just as the muscles of your leg will become thin and atrophied if you break your leg and have to wear an immobilising cast for 2-3 months, this research suggests that if these connections between brain cells are not regularly stimulated or switched on they atrophy, and things like memory, learning capacity, balance and other neurological functions are undermined.
Conversely, an active brain produces new connections between nerve cells, giving the ageing brain a remarkable ability to grow, adapt and continue learning throughout life.
Well, firstly, take heart. We all occasionally walk into a room and forget what it was we went in there to do, but it’s important to keep things in perspective and not attach more significance to those experiences than they deserve.
At the same time, most people realise that dementia is a huge, multifaceted challenge, and that we need to continue searching for better solutions that focus on both its treatment and prevention.
This and other research is part of that process, suggesting that there are positive “lifestyle based” things we can all do to enhance our neurological wellbeing, no matter what age we happen to be.
Check out the related articles accompanying this one for more information on how to take good care of your neurological wellbeing, and in the meantime take a moment to consider the quote below:
“If you want to test your memory try and remember what you were worrying about a year ago” – Anonymous
 Katz & Rubin, Keep Your Brain Alive, 1999, Workman Publishing Inc, New York, p.3