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Like the rest of our bodies, the brain goes through extensive changes as we age. A new systematic review of 144 studies dealing with the brain and its functioning as we age has helped us to get a clearer picture on what is happening and what we can do about it!

While very young, the brain undergoes massive and rapid changes. It gains new neural pathways and is constantly reorganizing that for greater efficiency and usefulness. When a baby first learns to walk, the act requires concentrated, focused attention on every aspect of the body, balance, sight, etc. As we practice, that process becomes more automated leaving our brain free to focus on other things. That is a tiny example of what our brain continues to do throughout life in nearly every area.

While that sort of optimization is critical for maturation and normal development, somewhere in the third or fourth decade of life, that process becomes less helpful. As the researchers put it:

“Older adults tend to show less flexible thinking, such as forming new concepts and abstract thinking, lower response inhibition, as well as lower verbal and numeric reasoning.”

That’s not a good thing.

Eventually, this lack of flexibility compounds and becomes what we often think of as cognitive decline.

So what can we do to slow this process? A few things!

1) Sleep – As we age, we tend to sleep less. That reduction in sleep seems to be linked with accelerated brain atrophy and a reduction in the connections between different parts of the brain. Get your full 8 hours!

2) Diet – Eating a wide variety of live, whole foods has a direct impact on neuroplasticity, ESPECIALLY foods rich in omega 3’s and other fats. There are plenty of good options for eating styles, but the mediterranean seems to be a clear standout with it’s focus on nuts, healthy fats, and high-fiber veggies. Conversely, hyper-processed & hyper-palatable foods have a negative impact on our neuropathways leading to inflammation and (eventually) neurodegenerative diseases.

3) Exercise – That’s right! New research shows we CAN create new brain cells, and exercise helps to encourage that process! What’s more, this has been shown to work well into your 70s (where researchers stopped looking). It’s never too late to start moving!

4) Use It – Like so many other things in life, mental flexibility has to be practiced to be maintained. Anything that challenges your existing knowledge-base fits the bill. Start ballroom dancing! Take up painting! Learn a new language! Read books on a topic you know nothing about! Doing these things forces your brain to re-engage and re-map itself… and that’s a good thing! Never, EVER stop learning!

While this isn’t to say we can diet and exercise our way out of neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, it DOES mean we don’t have to give in and accept “getting old and forgetful” without a fight!

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas