Your brain peaked when you were twenty–what to do?

This is one of my occasional health related posts.

The next area of focus for me as I seek to slow the process of ageing is the brain. Physical fitness is a pre-condition for mental longevity, so I was right to start there, but the statistics (such as they are) on the physical decline of the brain after the age of twenty make for terrifying reading.

The average human brain weighs around 1.5kg (3lbs), has a volume of around 1,200 cubic centimetres and contains 80-120bn neurons.

The interesting question for me right now is how that changes with age. There isn’t a great deal of good data out there, but I found an NCBI study which looks pretty solid and was consistent with the bits and pieces of information I found on other sites. The NCBI study culled data from 20,000 autopsy reports and found that:

  • brain mass quadruples age 0-4
  • quintuples again age 5-20
  • is flat to slightly down age 20-45
  • goes into progressive decline from 45-86,
  • different regions of the brain decline at different rates, with some regions shrinking up to 1% per year
  • at age 86 the average brain mass is 11% below peak (some estimate 20%)

The reasons for the decline in mass are still poorly understood. Until a couple of years ago there was consensus that our brains shrink with age because large numbers of neurons die, but now some people are thinking that it is due to a decline in the volume of cellular fluid.

As well as shrinking in mass the brains chemical and hormonal functions change with age. This is even less well understood, but it appears that the brains ability to expand certain regions to learn new things (it’s plasticity) declines, and the production of key pleasure hormones dopamine and serotonin works less well.

The physical changes can manifest themselves in the following symptoms (not everybody suffers):

  • Loss of memory
  • Poor concentration and focus
  • Slower thinking
  • Reduced function in the brain’s pleasure centres

So far, so morbid. The good news is that there are things we can do which stand a chance of arresting the decline (although nobody knows for sure).

Firstly there are the common sense items – sleep well, eat well, stay fit, keep active, and avoid stress.

Secondly, treat the brain like a muscle – use it and it will stay strong. Actually, the brain is more like a group of muscles that have to be exercised individually – one for emotions, one for physical co-ordination and one for logical computation. There seems to be widespread consensus that the best way to overall brain health is to work on all three – spend time with people you love, engage in activities which require tricky co-ordination, and do the crossword! Change is also important – seek out new people, try new sports, and switch to soduku every now and again.

The third area is where things are interesting for me right now, and that is supplementation. This is also the most controversial. None of the supplements I mention below are being sold with FDA approved claims about brain health or anti-ageing – i.e. none of them have effects which are proven to the satisfaction of the regulator. However, many have positive indicators from small scale trials and chemical or biological reasons to believe they might have a beneficial effect. Over the next 5-10 years I expect some of them will go on to be accepted by regulators and move into widespread use. I’m 39 now which means my brain will enter its ‘progressive shrinking stage’ soon and I’m strongly minded to take advantage of the latest helpful technologies today rather than waiting for a decade by which time some regions of my brain might have shrunk by 5%.

Our bodies were designed for a 30-40 year lifespan and we struggle to maintain optimum levels of many chemicals and nutrients after that age, even with a healthy diet, and the high level thinking is that supplements can help reduce the deficit. I already take some supplements that help with brain health (fish oil, vitamin b complex) and I’m thinking of adding the following:

  • Phosphatidyl Choline – which helps with cell membrane constituents (and hence plasticity) and improves memory and learning
  • Ginkgo Biloba – which improves blood flow to the brain and may help with short term memory
  • Phosphatidylserine – also good for cell membranes, and helps with memory loss and stress related damage
  • Co-Enzyme Q10 – helps with energy levels (provides energy to the mitrochondria)
  • N-Acetyl-L-Carnitine – good for memory and blood flow to the brain

If you had asked me a week ago I would also have had Vinpocetine on the list. Vinpocetine increases production of adenosine triphsophate, the brains energy source and many people take it because it makes them feel more alert and able to concentrate for longer. However, after finding this discussion about negative side effects I think I will probably give it a miss.

Similarly I’m going to give geranium stem (aka dimethylamylamine, methylhexanamine and DMAA) a miss. It’s supposed to provide a long caffeine like buzz without the downside, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

My primary source for this has been Transcend by Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman, but I have also read websites too numerous to mention.

Any thoughts on the above would be much appreciated. It’s a big step to start supplementing for brain health, and I want to think it through properly. Simply writing this post has helped a lot.

  • http://twitter.com/fhr Francine Bennett

    Interesting stuff. Are the effects of any of the supplements supposed to be short term / rapid enough to measure in yourself? That might be a good way to assess what works for you personally. In fact, I see that someone on the front page of Quantified Self today seems to have been giving exactly that a try (http://quantifiedself.com/) – might be worth a view to get tracking ideas

  • http://www.theequitykicker.com brisbourne

    Interesting video. The effects I’m after are long term and therefore less easy to measure.

  • John

    Have you had any thoughts about Transcranial direct-current stimulation?  Sounds like it can have amazing effects albeit a little scary.  Early adopters try here http://flowstateengaged.com/

  • http://www.theequitykicker.com brisbourne

    I’ve read a little about it. Sounds interesting, but my focus at the moment is on slowing the ageing process. Will read this article though, thanks.

  • http://citiversity.com/ Keyvan Nilforoushan

    I had a good experience with Lumosity, and N-Back games (I use the open-source BrainWorkShop). The good thing is that, unlike crosswords, it allows me to actually to measure progress from session to session with a score, and I can see that practice actually induces progress. The bad thing is that it is impossible to know if making progress in the game actually translates to progress anywhere else or if the brain is just getting ultra-efficient at playing a game… 

    This Wired article addresses the subject : http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2008/04/smart_software

  • http://tom-hart.com/ Tom Hart

    great stuff Nic!  I just went shopping on Amazon.  Did you take the plunge yet?  Would love to hear about results here in the future.  

  • http://www.theequitykicker.com Nic Brisbourne

    I’ve bought the supplements, but haven’t received them yet. Will let you know how I get on.

    What did you go for?