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Building a Better Brain

Evidence is accumulating that the brain works a lot like a muscle – the harder you use it – he more it grows. Although scientists had long believed the brain’s circuitry was hand-wired by adolescence and in flexibility in adulthood, it’s newly discovered ability to change and adapt is apparently with us well into old age. Best of all, this research has opened up an exciting world of possibilities for treating strokes and head injuries – and warding off Alzheimer’s disease.


New knowledge about the brain is emerging from an obscure convent in Minnesota. Mankato is the site of the northwest headquarters of the School Sisters of Notre Dame where a long life is normal. In part because the nuns of this order don’t drink, smoke or die in childbirth and they live to an average of 85, and many live beyond that. Of the 150 retired nuns, 35 are older than 90.

But longevity is only a part of the nun’s story. They also do not seem to suffer from dementia, Alzheimers and other debilitating brain diseases as early as the general population. Dr. David Snowden of the Centre for Aging at the University of Kentucky has been studying the nuns for several years. He found that those who earn college degrees, who teach and who constantly challenge their minds live longer than less educated nuns who clean rooms or work in the kitchen. He suspects the difference lies in how they use their heads,

Within the human brain, each neuron contains thread-like appendages called axons which send signals to other nearby neurons. At the other end of the neuron are similar thread-like appendages called dendrites which receive messages from nearby cells. Axons and dendrites tend to shrink with age.

Dr. Snowden, who has examined the brains of many of the Sisters following their deaths stated that the better educated sisters had significantly more cortex and more synaptic branching of neurons than their less educated Sisters.

Brain exercising is a way of life at the nunnery where the sisters live by the principle that an idle mind is the devil’s playground. They write spiritual meditations in their journals and letters to their congressmen about ongoing political issues. They are adept at debating the President’s health-reform proposals and current event seminars are held each week.

They are very skilled and better than most contestants at answering questions on the TV program “Jeopardy”. One 99 year old, Sister Mary takes advantage of slow minutes while working as the complex’s receptionist to solve brainteasers – some with words in Spanish.

Five nuns in Mankato will turn 100 within a few months. Sister Matthia is turning 101 and like many of the sisters, she taught school into her late seventies and is still sharp enough to recite her rosary and knit gloves for poor children. Having overcome cancer, she looks forward to daily exercise sessions and enjoys practicing shooting a nerf ball through a hoop.

Dr. Snowden continues to visit the Mankato nuns and they enjoy teasing him about his long hair. So far, Snowden’s team has examined the brains of 90 nuns for signs of dementia. He found significantly less brain atrophy and indications of more dendritic growth in their brains.

But – what about the rest of us who do not go out of our way to stimulate our brains like the Mankato sisters? Forgetting things is common among people of all ages. However, 75% of people over age 50 report having some problems with memory in the past year.

Quoting from an earlier blog (#25 – Building Blocks of the Brain), if a child is raised in a non-stimulating environment, the brain suffers. Researchers at Baylor Medical School found that children who don’t play much, who are rarely touched and have little stimulation develop brains 20% to 30% smaller than normal for their age. These findings increase concerns about leaving infants and very small children in the care of others. The importance of hands-on parenting, cuddling, talking with a toddler and providing stimulating experiences are critical for developing a healthy brain. That is why there is political debate about developing programs for boosting the brainpower of children born into impoverished rural and city households. By the age of three, a neglected or abused child has a compromised brain development and bears deep cortical scars that are difficult to erase.

The most potent therapy for older brains is exercise. The hippocampus, which “bar codes” memories for later retrieval is one of the two main sources for creating new neurons in the adult brain (the olfactory bulb is the other). Physical activity and exercise increases the rate at which these cells divide and survive. In recent research studies, exercise has also been shown to change the very brain regions that are more likely to degenerate first – the frontal lobes and the hippocampus. People between ages 60 and 79 who adopt a regular walking regiment can actually bulk up their brains – boosting the volume of both white and grey matter in these areas. The most likely reason the brain swells in size is because of the influx of capillaries and a surge of new neuronal connections. As older people become more fit, they show big improvements in executive function, multitasking and filtering out distracting stimuli. On average, according to neuroscientist Dr. Arthur Kramer, regular exercisers look three to five years younger on a variety of cognitive tests.

A diet rich in fish fat may benefit both heart and brain. About a half dozen studies show that fish consumption is associated with reduced risk of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.

Oh yes- and don’t bother cutting out coffee. It contains potent anti-oxidants – substances that deactivate the disease, causing by-products of metabolism. In animal studies, coffee has been shown to inhibit the brain cell destruction that occurs in Parkinson’s disease. Yeah! For us coffee drinkers J !

In another recent study, older men who drink three cups of coffee a day suffer less memory loss and fewer thinking problems than those who abstain.

Enjoy!

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