As people age, the chance of dementia rises. The most dreaded form of this memory robbing condition is Alzheimer's disease (AD). Already the seventh-leading cause of death in the U.S., the incidence of Alzheimer's is expected to soar as the huge Baby Boomer generation ages. According to the National Institute on Aging, as Alzheimer's progresses, the brain shrinks. So it is not a comforting thought to know that science has long stated aging brains shrink as we grow older, even if you don't have AD.
Having a brain that is going to atrophy with the passing years seems to indicate that some mental decline must be inevitable. Well, guess what? That "fact" is looking more and more like another example of a bogus belief ingrained in the medical establishment that is not backed up by solid evidence. According to new research just published in the American Psychological Association's journal Neuropsychology, the studies that supposedly proved even healthy older brains are substantially smaller than younger brains did not screen out people who had undetected, slowly developing brain diseases that were killing off brain cells and shrinking gray matter.
Bottom line: researchers overestimated atrophy in the brains of older adults and underestimated the normal size of older, healthy brains. The new study tested participants in Holland's long-term Maastricht Aging Study who did not suffer from any neurological problems such as stroke, Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia, or Parkinson's disease. Research subjects shown to be healthy then took neuropsychological tests, including a screening test for dementia, at baseline and then every three years for the next nine years.
After three years, study participants were also given MRI scans to document measurements of seven different parts of their brains, including the hippocampus (an area important for forming and holding on to memories) and the frontal and cingulate areas of the critical cortex which are important for cognitive skills.The study participants, who were all around 69 years old when the study started, were placed into two groups.
One was comprised of 35 cognitively healthy people who stayed free of dementia throughout the time of the study and the other group was made up of 30 people who showed substantial cognitive decline as the study progressed, although they were not officially diagnosed with dementia. In contrast to the 35 people who stayed healthy, the 30 people whose cognitive health went into decline over the nine years showed significant changes in their brains.
That means the brain shrinkage that previously would have been chalked up to aging was much more likely to reflect some pathology going on the brain -- not the passing of years. In fact, the authors of the study concluded that as long as people stay cognitively healthy, the gray matter supporting cognition might not shrink much at all. "If future longitudinal studies find similar results, our conception of 'normal' brain aging may become more optimistic," lead author Saartje Burgmans, a PhD candidate at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, said in a statement to the media.
While there is at present no cure for many brain diseases, including Alzheimer's, natural health strategies have been shown to help lower the risk of dementia. For example, the National Institute on Aging web site states research suggests a nutritious diet, exercise, social engagement, and mentally stimulating pursuits can reduce the risk of cognitive decline and AD. Moreover, scientists are investigating associations between cognitive decline and heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity -- all conditions that can often be prevented and even reversed through natural methods using exercise, diet, stress reduction (including meditation and yoga), nutrients and herbal therapies.
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