Age and the Brain
In this Special Report, we probe the minds of scientists at the Rotman Research Institute, part of Canada’s Baycrest, a world-leading centre for the care and study of aging adults.
Retain: A high-fat diet impairs memory
Baycrest researchers discovered rats fed a diet high in fat — comparable to the food eaten by humans who ignore good nutrition — displayed substantially diminished cognitive ability in memory and learning tests compared to other rats fed a low-fat diet over the same three-month period. Their study, published in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, also noted that glucose treatment considerably helped improve memory function in the animals given the high-fat diet.
Dr. Carol Greenwood, nutritional scientist at Baycrest’s Kunin-Lunenfeld Applied Research Unit (KLARU), says brains need glucose — essentially energy — in order to function. “When glucose metabolism is impeded by saturated fatty acids, it’s like clogging the brain and starving it of energy.”
Restore: Drinking tea can help brain health
The Brits are on to something. Besides providing a soothing pick-me-up, tea may reduce risk of dementia and neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. According to Baycrest’s Dr. Carol Greenwood, research presented at a scientific symposium on Tea and Human Health in Washington, D.C. in 2007, showed tea may help prevent brain cells from dying, or once damaged, may help them to repair.
“All teas, such as oolong and black, contain high levels of antioxidants, and we believe reducing oxidative damage in the body and brain is helpful in lowering the risk of cognitive decline with aging.” More research is warranted, she added.
Replenish: The benefits of bilingualism
Rejuvenate: The benefits of physical exercise
According to the U.S.–based Franklin Institute, declining memory and motor skills are more often associated with lack of mental and physical activity than a result of aging. An increased heart rate ups the flow of blood to the brain, bringing more oxygen, feeding it more energy-enhancing glucose and removing waste products. A study by the University of Illinois, cited by the institute, showed physical exercise no more strenuous than walking had a positive effect on brain performance. By improving cardiovascular-respiratory fitness by five to seven per cent, participating walkers bettered mental test results by as much as 15 per cent.
The cerebellum, the computer-like “little brain” neatly tucked away at the bottom of the brain, co-ordinates voluntary movement, balance, learning and remembering physical skills, performing motor skills among other cognitive functions. Since this part of the brain is responsible for physical capabilities, it’s believed its size is a good indicator of physical powers.