Aging Brains Degrade Even Without Disease
> 12/6/2007 1:41:40 PM

As doctors learned that illnesses like Alzheimer's Disease (AD) could cause the mental decline that had been seen as the result of natural aging, many began to question whether decline was inevitable after all. It seemed possible that your mind could be as sharp at 80 as at 18 if you could avoid neural diseases. This is an appealing picture, but a study in the latest issue of Neuron established that large-scale neural degeneration occurs in older brains independent of AD.

Dr. Jessica Andrews-Hanna put 93 adult subjects through a series of PET scans and cognitive function tests. The PET scans detected accumulations of amyloid beta, the protein that comprises the neural plaques thought to cause the impairments of AD, and those subjects with pathological levels of amyloid beta were divided into a separate group. The group with old but non-ill brains were then examined in detail.

The elderly, non-ill subjects showed widespread disruptions in white matter, the neural tissue that connects all of the powerful processing tissue of the brain. The deterioration was especially pronounced in the connections between the front and back of the brain, and scores on cognitive tests confirmed that subjects with this breakdown were less able to coordinate the various regions of their brains.

The decline in cognitive scores and white matter integrity usually progressed in step with age, but there was significant variety. Thus, the conclusion to be drawn from this study is that aging does naturally tend to degrade cognitive function even without illness, but that it does not do so uniformly, leaving open the possibility that certain lifestyles and diets can slow the process. If you forget your car keys, don't panic and assume that you have AD. Memory and mind can dull over time without the help of a life-threatening illness. However, the advice to refrain from panicking is not license to do nothing; brisk walks and mental exercise are important for anyone who wants to have the greatest chance of staying sharp in the twilight years.

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