Judith Horstman is a science writer who was asked by Scientific American magazine to write one article on how our brains work. Her article stretched into story after story and eventually compiled into a book: The Scientific American Healthy Aging Brain. This simple explanation of everything our brains are doing makes for the clearest reading I’ve encountered. Recently published, the information is up to date. Here are a few tidbits:
- Strokes are the greatest cause of disability in our country. There are clot busters that can bring people back to about 90 percent of their pre-stroke capability if given within a three-hour duration after the stroke. But there’s more. Talking to and rubbing, stroking, holding hands with the victim can increase neural connections that may mitigate stroke damage. This has been proven only in lab rats so far, but the implications certainly apply to us as well. Not long ago it was thought that stroke victims had only a three month interval to improve. That has been disproved. Many stroke victims improve with continued therapy over a longer time period.
- Diabetes: It’s recognized that diabetics may suffer from dementia, usually Alzheimer’s, at higher rates than the rest of the population. We now know why. It’s not only the pancreas that manufactures insulin but also the brain. The depletion in the brain follows the depletion in the pancreas. The National Institutes of Health are sponsoring a study using a nasal mist of insulin as a future therapy.
- Statins: About five percent of people taking statins report a decline in cognitive skills and memory loss. Statins lower the amount of cholesterol circulating in the blood, decreasing the incidence of plaque building in arteries. At the same time, the brain contains more cholesterol than any other part of the body. It’s essential for neuron contacts. If the amount of cholesterol is lowered in the brain, as well as the body, it’s likely to show up as confusion, inability to make a decision, foggy thinking. Despite this, there are many people who benefit from statins and do not show signs of cognitive decline.
- MCI, or mild cognitive impairment, may lead to Alzheimer’s but there’s only a slight correlation. This is good news for those who can’t remember names of new people, misplace items and lose the flow of a conversation. Those with MCI are well aware of their problems, unlike a true Alzheimer’s patient. New research is looking for ways to halt or slow MCI.
- It appears that what women suffer from in old age is mostly what they suffer from in middle age: arthritis, autoimmune diseases and osteoporosis. Women, Horstman suggests, live through their diseases and manage them. Conversely, men in old age suffer more from cancer and heart disease. This may be one–although not the only–reason why their life span is shorter. Some researchers believe that women are designed with different immune systems. They must carry a fetus that usually would be rejected—all of this is managed by the brain. Somehow female immune systems are different from the male’s and may account for their capacity to withstand some diseases better than men.
- Some commonly prescribed drugs may interfere with your brain’s ability to use acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter and have side effects such as delirium. They’re called anticholinergic agents, including antihistamines, antidepressants, antipsychotics and drugs for urinary incontinence.