The brain's abilities to reason, comprehend and remember may start to worsen as early as age 45, a new study from England suggests.
Researchers gave tests of thinking skills to about 5,100 men and 2,200 women between the ages of 45 and 70 years over a 10-year period. They found people ages 45 to 49 years experienced a notable decline in mental functioning.
"'Senior' moments that people often joke about are true," said Dr. Gary Small, geriatric psychiatrist David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved with the work.
"If you follow people over time, you'll see there are structural changes that happen in the brain as they age," he said.
The study was published today (Jan. 5) in the British Medical Journal.
Healthy lifestyle may help with brain aging
Previous evidence suggests that impaired cognitive function could be an early sign of dementia. One recent study showed cognitive performance strongly predicted a 75 percent diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, a common form of dementia, after six years.
About 1 in 8 older Americans have Alzheimer's disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association. They anticipate the numbers will grow each year as more and more people continue to live longer.
Though the age at which cognitive decline begins remains unknown, researchers say the new study demonstrates the importance of a healthy lifestyle, particularly paying attention to cardiovascular health, which may help stave off the effects of brain aging.
"A decline in mental function is inevitable," said Steven Ferris, a psychologist at New York University's Langone Medical Center, who was not involved with the work. "Following a healthy lifestyle can help a certain degree of mental functioning, but there requires more research to prove this."
A healthy lifestyle includes exercising, which increases blood flow to the brain, providing it with much-needed nutrients. Eating foods that are good for the heart, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains is also important, because it could protect brain cells from age-related decline.
A faster decline among older people
Study participants were tested for memory, vocabulary, hearing and visual comprehension skills. People were given cognitive tests three times over the course of the study. The researchers took differences in education levels into account.
Researchers found that over the 10-year study, there was a 3.6 percent decline in mental reasoning scores in people who were between the ages of 45 and 49 at the study's start. There was a 9.6 percent decline in the abilities of men ages 65 to 70 years at the start, and a slightly smaller, 7.4 percent decline, in women of those ages.
Results showed that cognitive test scores declined in all categories except vocabulary, and scores declined faster in older people.
The study also demonstrated that measuring people's abilities at one point in time may not yield accurate results.
"This study follows the same people over a long period of time to see if their cognitive performance changes," said Ferris.
"And these changes are beginning earlier than what people previously thought," he said.
While this may be the case, it is well documented that the brain can open new avenues that have been closed through aging. So getting out of set routines, trying new games, using the other hand for most things etc....
Exercise is the other important to a healthier brain, this stimulates the neuromitters, I would love to know how to stimulate the hypothalamus.
(So glad you decided to respond to that old article here! I had been looking for it and couldn't find it, no thanks to Ning's super lame search engine...)
I'm not so sure about the timely decline of mental sharpness!
I'm way past my prime and last year, at about this time, I decided to see if I could teach myself the new HTML5/CSS3 way to build webpages - I'm a trained graphic artist, NOT an engineer of any kind.
One striking (to me) example was the increasingly complex abstract 'objects' I was able to hold in my mind, and 'rotate' and examine from multiple angles. More and more stuff could be done without committing to screen, by just thinking it out more thoroughly. It now feels like I have grown a new organ =)
Of course, it's nothing compared to the twentysomething kid who for five years singlehandedly coded my son's video game - you can almost see his brain glow through his cranium =) - but the experience has definitely convinced me that even after years of somewhat lazy thinking and mental complacency, an old brain can kickstart itself into... can we call this growth?
There are areas of the brain that can open up, yes we do lose what we have used for years and years but keeping the brain busy by trying new things allows for stimulation. I do not think we can excel but we can certainly keep that brain muscle healthy.
I have lost muscle which has led me to work out daily with the treadmill and 3 times a week with weights, this has not led me to look as I did but yet I am looking better and my muscle mass has grown. Absolutely not perfect but at least I have it now, this must be the way the brain is.
I believe that the more one exercises his brain, by any means, the more agile the brain becomes. We have also to take into account that older people have more experiences are most often but not all the time `wiser`in the way they think. I am very glad not to use my brain like I did in my twenties...