Ask An Expert: Smart Aging

A reader wants to know: How much of a role do my genes and my environment play in the health of my brain later in life?

Here’s an answer from Dr. Tomáš Paus, a neuroscientist and the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Joint Chair in Population Neuroscience at Baycrest:

This is a very good question. We are currently embarked on new research that is looking at just that—the interplay of genes and environment (eating habits, physical exercise, cultural traditions, for example) in brain and body health.

In order to fully understand this, we need to take a life span approach. We need to consider what has been going on throughout a person’s entire life, and even before they were born. To that end, we will study three generations of families, teenagers, parents and grandparents so that we can predict what sets a person on the “good” or “bad” path when it comes to his or her health.

We will try to understand why certain families, as well as certain ethnicities, live longer healthier lives. What factors make some susceptible to disease and what factors protect against it.

A combination of nature and nurture

My guess is that it’s a combination of these things. We know from previous research that even if you have the genes that increase your chances of having a particular disorder, you may never develop it if it is not combined with an adverse environment. For example, there are people who have a variant gene that “predisposes” them to depression. But whether or not they develop depression will depend on whether they are exposed to stressful life events. It is the combination of the “bad” gene and “adverse” environment that triggers the symptoms.

Our team will be investigating how our brains and bodies are shaped over time. The hope is that this project, in the long run, will help us live not just longer lives but stronger ones.

Over the next five years, our team will recruit approximately 2,000 three-generational families from different ethnic groups. We will be taking detailed measurements including brain and body scans, looking at heart health indicators, running different blood tests, and assessing mental health and cognitive abilities, such as memory and attention. We will also use web-based questionnaires about lifestyle, ethnicity and cultural traditions. The families will be followed over a span of 5, 10 and maybe even 20 years.

Once gathered and analyzed, the data could potentially transform the way we age. The findings might guide the development of interventions and treatments for use earlier in the lifespan — as early as childhood – to prevent or slow breakdowns in our mental and body health later on.

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