At one of my recent talks, someone asked me why I was so active promoting brain health, cognitive health? My answer at the time was “Because we didn’t know, but now we do! Now that we know we have to do something about it.” My answer may have had context after a talk, but not here. So, I filled in the middle between “We didn’t know” and “Now we know and have to do something about it.” It came out as …
EVOLUTION’S JOKE Based on our structure and physical capabilities we, as humans, should never have survived. But evolution provided us with opposable thumbs and a unique brain with the capability for learning, reasoning, problem solving, planning, conceptual thought, and complex communication. The brain that evolved provided us with a gateway into a world that went far beyond our natural surroundings. It was a world we could create and expand.
The evolution of the human brain has given us fire, tools, the wheel, electricity, the telescope, cars, the steam engine, the train, the telephone, radio, the plane, television, digital electronics, space ships, to mention a few, and we’ve wiped out or controlled numerous diseases. Our evolutionary success has even led to an increasingly older population.
Those are incredible accomplishments EXCEPT, that our older population, programmed to retire at the age of 65, has no defined societal age role and is plagued with memory loss, cognitive decline and dementia, of which Alzheimer’s is at the top of the charts with vascular dementia a nearby second. Why?
We start off knowing nothing about our environment learning as we grow. We attend schools, are educated, enter a productive trade or profession, raise a family, continue to work so that we can support ourselves and our family. We are contributors to the population, the economy, the culture, information, and evolutionary growth.
Then we reach that magic age of 65, supposedly a retirement age. We’ve worked hard for that retirement, but once we retire our role is questionable. That’s the age where we seem to drop off of the evolutionary growth scale. Actually, it seems at this point in life we begin the process of de-evolving, and that’s the joke. Unfortunately, it’s a cruel joke.
For most of us our memory and cognition decline. We can’t do what we did before, and if we continue down that path we lose awareness. We need to be cared for. It’s as if we’re children all over again. But we’re not children we’re adults.
Memory loss, cognitive decline, dementia, Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia are not air borne or contagious diseases. You can’t walk into a room full of people with any type of dementia and fear that you might catch it. These problems are not even the result of genetic inheritance.
So why is our aging population plagued with all of these brain related performance injuries? The answer is simple. WE DIDN’T KNOW!
Information goes through an evolutionary process of its own. It starts with very little and builds on what is known. We thought we knew, but as it turns out, we didn’t.
At first, we simply looked at the brain as a secret of God’s creation. With knowledge and experience we began to see the human brain as a fixed genetic inheritance and a passive receiver of information.
Accident, injuries and new technology kept providing new information. Alzheimer’s autopsy of an older patient, a needy supervisor and an excited press gave us “Alzheimer’s Disease”.
We developed the theory of “Localization” which meant that every structure in the brain had a function. Damage that structure and you lose that function.
Then we learned that the brain was plastic, that its internal structure was constantly changing in response to what you do and don’t do, that the brain could heal itself, and that our experiences were being recorded on newly generated brain cells. That is, until your early twenties when it all stopped. At least, that’s what the neuroscience community thought, That meant that brain plasticity didn’t apply either. It was the highly exceptional person that could learn after that.
But the myths that our brain was a fixed genetic inheritance, a passive receiver of information, that aging caused cognitive decline and that only older adults need be concerned about cognitive health persisted. Those myths hung over us telling us what we could and couldn’t do, describing who we are and what we could be.
Then in the 1990’s knowledge about and understanding of the human brain began to change radically. New technology, advanced research and some very persistent people proved that the internal structure of the human brain is constantly changing throughout life in response to what you do or don’t do. Your experience, or lack of it, was changing the internal structure of your brain. The human brain was not a passive receiver and distributor of information at all. It was a receiver and active user of information. The human brain was the control center of your Brain, Mind, Body System.
Our pursuits went on. It was learned that the human brain was capable of producing experience-dependent brain cells throughout life, that the human brain was capable of healing itself and that life style, perspective, and achievement played a major role in how the human brain actually functioned, and that age was not a determining factor in cognitive ability. Aging didn’t cause cognitive decline. It was the health of a person’s brain as they aged that effected memory, and other cognitive abilities. FINALLY, WE KNEW. WE DIDN’T KNOW BEFORE, BUT NOW WE DID!
The major change in the perception and understanding of the human brain came about between 1998 and 2003. That’s not very long ago. Yet, you would think that something as important as this new understanding of who we are and what we can do would be made available to the public through schools and doctors as quickly as possible. But that didn’t happened.
We continue to live believing the myths that our brain is a fixed genetic inheritance and we have to make the best our of what we inherited. We continue to believe that our brain is a passive receiver of information, that aging causes memory loss and cognitive decline, and that only older adults need be concerned about cognitive health.
None of that is true! It’s the declining health of our brain that causes memory loss and cognitive decline, not age. But the human brain is resilient and can be restored to good health at any age with understanding, persistence and effort.
The human brain is a living, functioning structure. It functions to survive. It does that by making behavioral decisions. Those decisions are made based on what it knows and can draw upon. What the brain knows is the result of the information it’s processed and retained. The brain’s ability to process, retain and use information is dependent upon the health of the functioning structure.
This all means that as we age we have to focus on; 1. The continued processing of new information, formal or informal, and 2. The functioning health of our brain.
We know that the brain is resilient and can be restored to good functioning health. We know that aging doesn’t cause cognitive decline. We know that older adults don’t have to suffer memory loss, cognitive decline or dementia.
NOW, WE KNOW ALL THIS. NOW WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!
- Establish a role for yourself, even if you have to remake who you are;
- Continue to absorb and process new information, learn, either formally or informally, but do something with what you learn;
- Stay physically active, aerobic exercise, walking is great;
- Make sure you’re properly hydrated
- Eat the right foods, stop the damage doing
- Stay socially active
- Avoid stress, meditate
- Get a good nights sleep