I recently read a startling account of an active, lively 93-year old man who fell off a roof he had been repairing. When he landed, he hit his head on the ground and needed surgery to stop the bleeding in his brain.
The neurosurgeon who performed the surgery knew the man had been in excellent health and still maintained vigorous physical activity for a 93-year-old. So, he had expected to see a large, robust, healthy brain, pulsating with blood.
But the actual condition in which he found the man’s brain shocked him…
In fact, it looked like a typical 93-year-old brain—sunken in and shriveled up, with deep wrinkles corresponding to advanced old age.
Thankfully, the procedure was a success. And the man made a full recovery—returning to his previous level of physical and mental activity.
But this just goes to show you that it doesn’t really matter what the brain looks like during surgery or on a CAT scan. What really matters is how well your brain functions in your day-to-day life!
I recently had a similar reminder of this very important principle with a family member who hadn’t been feeling well…
Brain scans don’t always tell the whole story
Back in February, a member of my family was admitted to the ER and underwent a brain scan in an attempt to determine what had been causing some vague neurological issues.
The ER doctor on duty had never seen or conversed with the patient before. Nor had he conducted a single physical or neurological exam, let alone put my family member through any kind of cognitive testing.
Instead, based upon the results of a single brain scan, he callously pronounced that my family member had the brain of a person 20 years older than her actual age.
Needless to say, his glib pronouncement was very upsetting.
But he was wrong to rely so heavily on a single, arbitrary brain scan. Instead, he should have given her some kind of cognitive testing. Or—at the very least—asked us the all-important question of how well was she functioning cognitively before that day? Because there’s an old truism in medicine, “always treat the patient, not the test results.”
Thankfully, as I had expected she would all along, my family member made a nearly complete recovery, just like the 93-year-old on the roof. And today—I would say her cognitive function is entirely appropriate for someone her age.
The brain grows stronger throughout your life
When you hear stories like this, it’s important to remember that the human brain can actually become larger, stronger, and more robust through life. And humans are distinctive in this regard compared to all other creatures on planet Earth…
As we evolved into upright, walking creatures, the human pelvis had to grow smaller (narrower). And as a biological compromise, human infants were born with smaller heads (and brains) to fit through the smaller female pelvis.
This basic evolutionary adaptation also explains why humans are born at earlier stages of neurological development compared to other species. And why they accordingly have a much longer period of dependency compared to any other creature.
However, unlike other species, the human brain grows and matures tremendously during infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Indeed, for millions of years, human nuclear and extended families were organized to help support children during this prolonged period of dependency and development, so the child could grow up and survive.
In my view as a physician and anthropologist, family units have been fundamental to our survival as a species! (So, it boggles my mind when I read about the modern, politically correct factions who try to deny the importance of family to human development and well-being.)
Of course, we now know the human brain can also continue to grow and improve well beyond childhood and adolescence…
Seek ways to improve your cognition during adulthood
For a long time, scientists thought the human brain stopped growing and developing in adulthood. But we now know the human brain is capable of growing new cells in a process called neurogenesis. In fact, a study from two years ago found that even the oldest brains can still produce just as many new brain cells in the hippocampus as younger, developing brains!
So, instead of worrying about what a brain scan shows or doesn’t show, I suggest you focus on things you can do, starting today, to support your brain health. Here are my four simple suggestions:
- Maintain an active, healthy lifestyle. Studies show getting some regular, moderate exercise supports healthy circulation to your brain. So focus on getting a total of 2.5 hours weekly of light-to-moderate exercise. Remember, gardening and working around the house count toward your weekly total.
- Give your brain a workout. A study published in the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) more than a decade ago showed that men and women who participated in cognitive activities such as reading, playing board games, doing crossword puzzles, and playing musical instruments over an average period of five years had markedly lower dementia risks. So, look for enjoyable activities that also challenge your brain—like the ones spotlighted in the BMJ study, or even learning a new language, driving, learning to sew, or reading.
- Follow a healthy, Mediterranean-type diet. As you probably know, I’m a big fan of this authentic, balanced, healthy diet that’s rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, wild-caught fish and seafood, full-fat dairy (like butter, eggs, cheeses, and yogurt), free-range, grass-fed and -finished meats, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. These foods are rich in nutrients shown to boost overall health—including brain health. You can also enjoy moderate amounts of alcohol on this healthy, science-backed diet. In fact, one study found that people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol have “significantly” better odds of living to age 85 without dementia compared to teetotalers!
- Stay friendly. Keeping up social interactions is also a healthy, brain-building activity. Specifically, it strengthens the frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for complex analysis and decision-making. A strong frontal cortex can also balance responses from the emotional centers of the brain, such as the amygdala. It even helps you think through a crisis, rather than feeling like you’re facing an insurmountable problem. There are various ways to stay social…even in the age of coronavirus. Two simple recommendations are having regular conversations with family members, friends, volunteers, or even strangers; and finding online groups that correspond to a newfound hobby (like cooking).
In the end, don’t let anyone scare you into thinking you’ve got an “old” brain based on some arbitrary scan.
Instead, continue to stay plugged into the world around you by reading my Daily Dispatch and Insiders’ Cures newsletter. It seems there’s always something new to report in the field of brain health.
Plus, you can learn much more about the many safe, effective, and science-backed ways to support your cognition as you get older in my comprehensive, online learning tool, my Complete Alzheimer’s Fighting Protocol. To learn more, or enroll today, simply click here.
P.S. Tune back in tomorrow to learn about some common brain health myths!
“Human Hippocampal Neurogenesis Persists throughout Aging.” Cell Stem Cell, 2018; 22 (4): 589. doi.org/10.1016/j.stem.2018.03.015
“Mental activity may help prevent dementia.” BMJ. 2003;326(7404):1418.