As we age, our brain becomes imperfect, but…

we do not have to wait until old age to prepare ourselves to face its consequences

…it seems that memory training can compensate for the ‘imperfections’of human brain. This is the conviction of Ms Dana Steinova, who is the Head of the European Federation of Older Persons and also the Founder-President of the Czech Society for Memory Training and Brain Jogging. By ‘imperfections’ she refers to the consequences of the changes that take place in the aging brain, which were elaborated upon by her colleague. She was here giving a 5-day course to the public on Memory Training from June12-16 at the University of Mauritius in a collaboration with the Global Rainbow Foundation, and in association with Professor Pavel Kalvach M.D. who is a neurologist from the Charles University in Prague, Czechoslovakia.

The two were present at the Octave Wiehe Auditorium last Monday to give a lecture each. Using sophisticated radiology techniques such as functional neuroimaging and PET scan, Prof Kalvach studies what takes place in the brain structures with advancing age, and he made a very instructive powerPoint presentation on the subject. Ms Steinova gave an account of how memory training can help aging people to regain the self-esteem and self-confidence that erode as a result of the memory lapses present in old age, the extreme form of which is Alzheimer’s disease. But it’s not only memory loss that makes us feel shaky, we tend to become hard of hearing as well, and as a write-up in a Harvard Health Newsletter on ‘Hearing Loss’ puts it:

‘Seeing is believing, but hearing is belonging. It’s joining in a conversation, sharing a joke, listening to a child’s excited retelling of a story, going to a play with friends, or enjoying a romantic dinner with your spouse. Losing the ability to hear crisply and clearly can be isolating and frustrating. It can take away daily pleasures and can even threaten your independence.’

The write-up goes on to say that it is possible to compensate for loss of hearing by making the appropriate diagnosis and treating any underlying medical condition, and by the provision of the latest, more effective hearing aids which are nowadays available. The person then ‘reconnects’ with his social life anew and does not need to feel isolated or excluded.

However, we do not have to wait until old age to prepare ourselves to face its consequences, which are both physical and mental. The latter refers to the decline in cognitive skills, such as the ability to learn new information, to remember and recall, to pay sustained attention and so on. As Prof Kalvach explained in his lecture, several changes in the brain contribute to this decline in cognitive functioning: significant ones are diminution of brain volume generally (which starts at the age of 25!!), relative paucity of blood supply in multiple areas of the brain, and deterioration of the brain tissue made up of the nerve cells or neurons and their fibres (a process known as neurodegeneration).

It is through these neurons and bundles of fibres that the different parts of the brain communicate or ‘talk’ with each other as they process the tens of millions of bits of information that reach specific areas of the brain from our five senses. Much like the CPU of a computer does, the brain then processes all this sensory input and integrates it. It then sends an output in the form of a ‘command’ (e.g. seek food when the sensation of hunger is felt) so that physical action is taken by the body at the level of our organs and limbs to carry out the instruction coming from the brain.

The other important part of this output is expressed as the cognitive skills that we display as we go about our daily lives. It follows that neurodegeneration will adversely affect these skills, and this effect will be aggravated if there is a diminished blood supply or poor vascularization across the brain as part of the aging process.

By way of prevention, Prof Kalvach said that there is not much we can do about the neurodegeneration, such as taking supplements, but we can target vascularization through lifestyle changes, starting early in our life: in other words, prevention is better than cure. Of course this comes as no surprise, because his recommendation cuts across all the diseases which our modern lifestyle is giving rise to, namely the non-communicable diseases which are common knowledge.

Thus, he emphasized tackling the risk factors associated with contemporary lifestyle that need to be addressed: smoking, sedentariness, junk food, lack of physical activity, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, etc. As has been said, ‘what is good for the heart is good for the brain.’ So through prudent eating and regular exercise, along with avoiding stressful situations, not only the heart and blood vessels (which are to be found in the brain as well) are kept in good shape but so is the brain tissue too. Exercise seems to slow or reverse the brain’s physical decay, much as it does with muscles.

Up to a point, though, for despite taking these preventive measures, the risk of mental decline is not entirely eliminated. As mentioned already there is not much that supplements such as omega-3 and others can do according to these two experts, and I agree with them that one should not wait for a miracle pill to come along and reverse physical decay or mental decline. That is where techniques such as memory training come in, for they help to strengthen the connect between different areas of the brain so that it functions better.

There are, however, additional techniques that antedate such memory training. For example, the speakers did not elaborate on meditation, but it must be pointed out that there is solid evidence through validated studies to show that meditation does affect the brain tissue positively, and is therefore an invaluable tool in preserving brain function. One could say that meditation ‘silences’ the brain, which is like a super-noisy radio – the noise being all the inputs it receives from our senses, to which are added our feelings and emotions which are the equivalent of further disturbances. ‘Silencing’ means allowing the brain to ‘rest’ – relatively speaking, for it is a 24/7 machine till we last, and it outlasts its owner – so that it gets ‘recharged’ to take up tasks afresh.

A few days ago was International Yoga Day, which was celebrated in nearly 150 countries across the world. Here is another, most beneficial technique which combines the physical aspect, namely practising the various postures or asanas, as well as the mental aspect of meditation. Besides, the great advantage of yoga is that it does not require any expensive equipment and once learnt can be practised in the comfort of one’s own home – a plus point for those who are short of time or means to go to the great outdoors. It is a good sign that more and more people are taking to yoga practice, with many schools in several countries having introduced it. Nothing better than initiating children to sound habits early on.

Meditation, yoga and Tai Chi form part of the category of mind-body interventions or MBIs which, besides toning the mind, also have other benefits such as reducing the risk of depression and cancer. This is the result of a work recently published by researchers from the universities of Coventry and Radboud. 18 studies featuring 846 participants over 11 years revealed a pattern in the molecular changes which happen to the body as a result of the MBIs, and how those changes benefit our mental and physical health. They explained the way that genes activate to produce proteins which influence the biological make-up of the body, the brain and the immune system.

And so, if we want to be both in good physical shape and mentally active in our later years, we know what to do! Therefore ready, get set, go!

Dr R Neerunjun Gopee 

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