Healthy Aging: The Normal Brain

agingwhiteroseAt the Stein Institute at the University of California, Dr. Dilip V. Jeste studies how an aging brain remains capable of compensating and adjusting. When we are young we use only one side of our brain to process information, often the dominant side. We know this because young children who have traumatic accidents often show signs that the opposite side of the brain takes over to compensate for loss of brain function. In older brains we begin to use both sides of our brain for ordinary activities. This leads researchers to assume that our brains compensate and adjust for loss of brain function in later life, too.

As we age, our brains need a rich environment to continue learning, a strong social network and support from loved ones. We often develop an improved vocabulary and communication skills, insight and compassion (the components of aging wisdom) and what is called domain-specific knowledge. This simply means that we have mastered what we have spent a lifetime honing, whether it’s financial, gardening or teaching skills.

One example of age compensating brain development: William Carlos Williams, the great American poet, wrote his best poetry in his 60s and 70s after a serious depression and stroke. Although he received support from his wife and friends, his brilliance during a late age is attributed to his lifetime of wisdom and capacity to compensate.

Here are tested results that slow down the aging process: an optimal weight, physical exercise, non-toxic environment (smoke-free), handling stress, super foods (colorful fruits and vegetables), a stimulating environment for learning, a positive attitude.

A healthy brain will have some limitations: recalling names, forgetting where you may put things, knowing vaguely that you told someone something, forgetting a task after starting it, losing a thread of a conversation. These are healthy aging signs and not indications of dementia. Despite these minor impairments we still have intact functions.

A few considerations: sudden infections or medications may lead to temporary delirium. Delirium is the sudden onset of disorientation. It’s now showing up in patients taking some antihistamines. So as we age we may become more sensitive to medications that younger people can take with impunity. Delirium is treatable but often confused with Alzheimer’s.

The Stein Institute, University of California at San Diego,

How a Healthy Brain Ages, Dr. Dilip V. Jeste, Dr. William Mobley, Dr. Gary Small