Published on: August 14, 2012
by Linda Sickler for Savannah Now:
Growing older is interesting.
So says Judith Horstman, the author of “The Scientific American Healthy Aging Brain: The Neuroscience of Making the Most of Your Mature Mind.”
“In the beginning of the book, I say aging is not a disease — it’s what happens if we’re lucky to live long enough,” she says. “It’s a reward.” In fact, a Gallup poll of more than 300,000 people found that many say they are happier in their early 70s than any other time except their early 20s, and most say they don’t regret their lives, Horstman says. “The myth of unhappy old people is untrue,” she says.
“Being healthy and flexible is a big part of that,” Horstman says. “If you stop changing, you’re dead.”
Many people dread aging because of fears of dementia and other brain disorders. Fortunately, in most cases, the outlook is much brighter.
“Short-term memory is not what it once was,” Horstman says. “But there are a lot of other things that become connected and acute.”
In most cases, minor forgetfulness is probably not a reason for concern, Horstman says. “But if you have a number of the signs listed in the book, you should go for an evaluation,” she cautions.
The book is the fourth in a series written in collaboration with Scientific American. Horstman also wrote “The Scientific American Day in the Life of Your Brain,” “The Scientific American Brave New Brain” and “The Scientific American Book of Love, Sex and the Brain.”
Even in cases of mental decline, the prognosis may not be grim. In her book, Horstman says early diagnosis is important because some conditions that seem like dementia are not only treatable, but can also be reversed.
“Many kinds of dementia that are called Alzheimer’s may be something else,” Horstman says. “It’s become a catch-all term.”
“If you look at the chapter ‘What Can Go Wrong?,’ there are many kinds of dementia,” Horstman says. “Many can be prevented, treated and reversed. Alzheimer’s is inevitable with only 1 percent or fewer of the population.”
Some medicines, including statins, can cause Alzheimer’s-like symptoms, Horstman says. “A person may simply be overmedicated.”
Even a simple urinary tract infection can affect mental cognition. “Low-level infections can cause a blurry kind of perception,” Horstman says
Fears of mental decline may come from our perceptions of others.
“I think we look at older people, our older relatives, and see they were not so happy when they were older or had so many physical problems,” Horstman says.
“It’s true that people who have health issues do have a basis for fearing aging. That’s not a happy thing.
“But all of us will face some health issues sooner or later, again if we are lucky enough. Aging is connected with loss, but every time we lose something, there’s room for something new to come in.”
While most people are aware of the discouraging parts, they need to understand that the brain begins aging at birth.
“Our greatest fear is that our bodies will outlive the use of our brains,” Horstman says. “Alzheimer’s is the No. 1 fear, even surpassing cancer.”
That fear might be needless.
“The good news is that for most of us in decent health, the brain ages rather slowly,” Horstman says. “The most rapid decline happens before death. Alzheimer’s is not inevitable for most of us.”
Can anything be done to prevent Alzheimer’s?
“A study done at Stanford predicts as many as half the cases of Alzheimer’s could be prevented by lifestyle,” Horstman says.
Physical exercise is one of the best things for your brain.
“Walking a mile a day may lower the risk,” she says. “People who isolate themselves may be at risk, and obesity may also be a factor. The last half of the book is about what you can do to optimize brain health.”
Challenging your brain helps keep it sharp as you age.
“Those expensive brain games that involve moving a finger or two while sitting don’t involve the body,” she says. “Learning to do the tango involves exercise and socialization. Games that help the brain are bridge and chess because they involve problem solving. The key words are ‘new’ and ‘difficult.’”
Horstman says her grown daughters tell her writing four science books in four years is bound to keep her brain healthy.
“And while the brain does change, we start using parts we didn’t before,” she says. “It’s all very encouraging.”
Keeping a positive attitude may be the most important step of all.
“There’s no such thing as anti-aging,” Horstman says. “Accept that changes come with age just as you had to accept changes at puberty. It’s all part of being alive.”
Photo by W. Walker. Author Judith Horstman.
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