Everything you have ever experienced, felt, or conducted in life is due to brain function. The ability to enjoy, perceive, sense and experience live is dictated by the firing rate and health of your brain. It is impossible for a person to become healthy mentally or physiologically without a healthy brain. – Datis Kharrazian, DC, MS
Maybe this goes without saying, but I think it’s worth pointing out: our ability to enjoy life is brain-based. The capacity to taste food, appreciate and create art and music, smell a flower, feel the sun or wind on our skin, experience orgasm, and contribute to life in a meaningful way is entirely mediated by the brain.
In fact, everything we’ve ever done, are doing now or will do depends on brain function.
With that in mind, consider this. Two things in life we can be absolutely sure of are:
- We are all going to die.
- Our brains are going to degenerate before we die.
While this might seem morbid to some, it’s the simple truth. And the more you’re able to accept this truth and act accordingly, the better chance you’ll have of aging gracefully.
Aging = neurodegeneration
We associate the symptoms of neurodegeneration with normal aging. We see advertisements for Depends diapers, nursing homes, medications for Alzheimers and Parkinson’s and laxatives all around us. Expressions like “having a senior moment” are part of the vernacular, and we’re often quick to explain loss of brain or physiological function as “just getting older”. We assume that the aches, pains and frustrating and sometimes embarrassing decline in quality of life we experience as we age is “normal”, because we see others around us going through the same changes.
But as I’ve pointed out many times, what’s common isn’t necessarily normal.
Studies that have looked only at only the healthiest elderly people find minimal cognitive decline even into the ninth decade. These data suggest that significant cognitive decline is not an inevitable consequence of advanced age.
Yet more than 4 million Americans have dementia today, and that number is projected to grow to 14 million in the next 50 years. 1 in 100 Americans over the age of 60 have full-blown Parkinson’s disease, and a greater number has “Parkionsonian-like” symptoms (early Parkinson’s).
There is no cure for dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkison’s, and they are devastating diseases. What’s more, conventional medicine is hopeless when it comes to diagnosing and treating these conditions. If you go to the doctor with early dementia signs, most will tell you to come back when your symptoms have progressed to the point that they are irreversible. By then it’s too late. You’ve lost too many neurons, and your brain is quite literally atrophied and shrunken. And there are no drugs that improve brain function.
So if you want to age well, minimize neurodegeneration and protect against common (but not normal) conditions associated with aging, you need to take matters into your own hands.
You had more brain cells the day you were born than you’ll ever have again
The first, and perhaps most important thing you need to know about the brain is that you have the most neurons (brain cells) you’ll ever have on the day you’re born. Brain tissue is post-mytotic, which means it does not regenerate. You start losing neurons from the first day of your life, and whatever neurons you lose are forever lost.
While that might sound depressing (and it is, really), it’s not the whole story. Because of a phenomenon called neurotropism, neurons have the ability to form new connections with other neurons to preserve function even in the face of declining quantity or quality of brain cells.
Let’s say neuron A is connected to neuron B which is connected to neuron C. If neuron B dies, or loses function, the connection between A & C will be interrupted. But neurotropism, also known as neuroplasticity, means that neuron A can form a new connection with neuron C without involving neuron B. This occurs through something called dendritic branching, where the threadlike extensions of a neuron reach out and form new connections with other neurons.
The short video below illustrates an example of this occurring with a single neuron over 36 hours.
But there’s a limit, of course, to how much function neuroplasticity can preserve. The more brain cells you lose, the fewer neurons there will be to form connections. So while plasticity can prevent some of the loss of function we experience from neurodegeneration, it’s not magic.
3 signs that you’re losing brain cells (neurodegenerating)
The following are the 3 earliest signs of neurodegeneration.
Fatigue promoted by brain activity
Let’s say you used to be able to study for 3 hours at a time without getting tired, but now you can only go for 30 minutes before your brain turns to mush. Or maybe you get really tired after driving, or doing your taxes or performing other tasks that heavily involve your brain. This is a sign your neurons are degenerating and have lost the ability to make ATP.
In depression, the frontal cortex (the part of the brain thought to be involved with higher level thinking, planning and goal formation) is not firing well and actually atrophies. This is one reason why taking antidepressants, which increase neurotransmitter levels in the synaptic cleft but do nothing to increase the health of the brain environment, are often limited in their effect.
Poor digestive function
90 percent of the brain’s output goes into something called the pontomedullary system. The brain is constantly receiving input from receptors, and it is constantly sending outputs as well. The main output conduit is the brain stem; specifically, the parasympathetic cranial nerve nuclei and especially the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve enervates the digestive tract and controls everything from the secretion of stomach acid and pancreatic enzymes to intestinal motility and gall bladder contraction.
If 90 percent of the brain’s output goes into the vagus area, and your brain is not firing well, you’re going to have digestive problems. (I recently recorded a podcast on the gut-brain axis with much more detail on this topic. You can find it here.)
Other symptoms of gut-brain axis dysregulation include cold hands and feet, toenail fungus that won’t heal and brain fog.
Okay. Now, guess what 3 of the main problems seniors experience are? That’s right – fatigue, depression and digestive problems. That is not a coincidence. That’s neurodegeneration.
What causes neurodegeneration?
As I said at the beginning of the article, some amount of neurodegeneration is completely unavoidable. However, the following factors are likely to kill your brain cells at a much faster rate:
- blood sugar problems (Alzheimer’s is now referred to as “diabetes of the brain” in some circles)
- hypoxia (reduced oxygen deliverability, often caused by poor circulation or anemias)
- systemic inflammation (autoimmunity, leaky gut, chronic infections, food toxins, etc.)
- hormone imbalances
- altered methylation (leading to elevated homocysteine and atrophy of the hippocampus)
- traumatic brain injury
Anti-aging = fix your brain
The current anti-aging movement is about botox and plastic surgery, tanning machines and hormone creams. That’s a complete joke. There’s nothing about these activities that does anything at all to slow down neurodegeneration and improve plasticity, which is the ultimate goal of any true “anti-aging” program.
You do this by following these guidelines:
- Avoid food toxins. These include industrial seed oils, excess sugar (especially fructose), cereal grains and processed soy
- Ensure adequate micronutrient status. Especially those nutrients involved in oxygen deliverability (B12, iron & folate)
- Improve fatty acid balance (n-6:n-3 ratio). 60% of the brain is phospholipid, and DHA has been shown to enhance plasticity and brain function while reducing inflammation and neurodegenerative conditions.
- Fix the gut. There’s a saying in functional medicine, “Fire in the gut = fire in the brain”. Inflammation in the gut will cause activation of the microglial cells (immune cells) of the brain.
- Stay mentally active. Neurons need constant stimulation or they will atrophy and die. This is why elderly people that stay active and mentally engaged in something age better than those that view retirement as an opportunity to watch golf on TV for 6 hours a day.
- Increase blood flow to the brain. Exercise is one of the best ways to do this. Acupuncture and stress management are also important.
- Get enough sleep. Not getting enough sleep can sabotage brain health in just about every conceivable way.
Finally, there are certain nutrients and botanicals that have been shown to protect against neurodeneration, prevent and even reverse neuroinflammation and preserve brain function. In fact, nutritional medicine really shines in this area. If you look in the scientific literature, you’ll see that almost all of the treatments being studied are either micronutrients or botanicals. That’s because there are no drugs that actually improve the health of the brain environment like natural therapies can.
- DHA (as mentioned above)
- Huperzine A. Has been shown to increase acetyl-choline activity, activate eNOS and nNOS systems (increasing blood flow to the brain) and suppress iNOS (which causes tissue damage).
- Vinpocetine. Also increases blood flow to peripheral tissues, including the brain.
- Gingko Biloba. Increases blood flow to the brain and promotes healthy brain function via multiple mechanisms.
- Polyphenols like apigenin, luteolin, baicalin, rutin, catechin and tumeric. Shown to reduce microglial activation and inflammation, which protect the neurons against degeneration.
Please don’t go out and buy a shopping bag full of these and start taking them all. The key is to identify the underlying mechanism and address that. Is it gut inflammation? Is it micronutrient deficiency? Is it blood sugar dysregulation? You’ll make far more progress correcting those problems than you will taking a bunch of supplements.
That said, the supplements and botanicals can provide additional support and therapeutic effect, especially when the problem is advanced or recalcitrant.
A healthy brain is the key to aging well
The next time someone says they’re having a senior moment, you’ll know what that really means: their brain is neurodegenerating. If you don’t want to be “that guy”, start following the guidelines above if you’re not already. You’ve only got one brain, you’re not making any more neurons, and your capacity to enjoy life and be productive is entirely dependent upon your brain health.