Mental health decline

1 Mar 2018

If you assumed that mental health problems are a "normal" part of the ageing process, it’s time to (quite literally) think again.

While it’s true that a significant number of people do develop dementia, depression and other issues as they get older, a recent study by neuroscientists at Columbia University shows that mental health decline is by no means inevitable as we get older.

Detailed analysis of the brain’s cognitive health

As part of this study, the brains of 28 people who had passed away suddenly were examined in detail. The participants were aged between 14 and 79 years old, and they had all been in good cognitive health before they died. This enabled neuroscientists to chart how the brain changed as it aged, and compare the differences between various ages.

So, what did they find out? Well, by studying slices from the hippocampus (a part of the brain associated with memory, as well as emotion), they were able to see that these brains contained thousands of newly formed neurons.

What’s more, all brains had a similar number of neurons forming in the hippocampus. And they estimated that this part of the brain could replace around 700 neurons per day – regardless of age. This complex process helps ensure that psychological changes are processed correctly in the brain. And when this process isn’t functioning properly it can lead to mental health decline.

So, what exactly does this mean?

Quite simply, the findings of this study showed that people generated the same number of new brain cells in older age as they do when they’re younger. So, a 79-year-old is making just as many new synaptic pathways as a teenager.

This is highly significant because it contradicts previous studies that said the brain is hard-wired and neurons are unable to regenerate in later life. Not only do these findings show that elderly people could actually have better brain function (including problem-solving and emotional responses) than previously thought – but they also explain, at least in part, why some people in their nineties and even older manage to remain so sharp. As discussed earlier, people are still capable of replacing neurons even as they age, meaning that decline in mental health isn’t inevitable in later life.

In addition, the results of this study have led to new-found hope that it may become possible to treat psychological and neurological conditions associated with old age. For example, poor circuitry in the hippocampus is believed to play a key role in the development of Alzheimer’s – the most widespread form of dementia in the UK today. So this research could help neuroscientists discover a mechanism for treating these kinds of diseases.

Staving off mental decline

Both your surroundings and your lifestyle can play a part in keeping the brain healthy and active over time. Although there are no proven ways to stave off mental decline or dementia as you get older, it is generally considered that diet, exercise and brain training may help keep your mind in good shape.

It’s more important than ever to take positive steps to make sure your brain and memory stay healthy as you get older. It’s sensible to maintain a healthy lifestyle and engage in activities that stimulate your mind, such as reading and puzzles. It can also help to stay sociable in later life, even if you live alone, as human contact and connection can have a positive impact as we get older.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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