'Experienced' Brains

Does age always make brain function deteriorate? According to a new study published in Topics in Cognitive Science, the answer, surprisingly, is no.

Michael Ramscar, Ph.D., of the University of Tübingen in Germany, said that older brains may just take longer to process information, which is often misinterpreted as a sign of dementia.

His team found that most standard cognitive measures are flawed. The researchers instead used a computer model to read and process information. When the computer was exposed to more data, it processed more slowly, not because its capacity had declined, but rather because it had more data to go through, taking more time.

Ramscar said this finding adds a new twist to our understanding of how remembering words, for example, actually works.

“Technology now allows researchers to make quantitative estimates about the number of words an adult can be expected to learn across a lifetime, enabling the team to separate the challenge that increasing knowledge poses to memory from the actual performance of memory itself,” Ramscar said in a statement.

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What Do Other Experts Say?

Ramscar’s research was done using a computer model, meaning that he didn’t conduct his experiments on human beings.

Charlie W. Seltzer, M.D., a Philadelphia-based physician who specializes in longevity, said the study offers an interesting “alternative view” of how the brain ages.

“However, no matter what causes ‘normal’ age-related memory changes, it is still important to bring up anything concerning with your doctor, as certain memory changes are indicative of more serious issues like Alzheimer's,” Seltzer said.

Mary Sano, Ph.D., the director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, said that she understands the premise of Ramscar’s research—that information load would increase with age, and then slow down search time, giving the appearance of cognitive decline.

“While this is a hopeful concept, it leads to the same outcome: slower or less efficient processing with age,” Sano said, adding that more research is needed to explore just how aging affects the brain.

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'Experience' or Cognitive Decline?

If Ramscar is right and older people simply have more information to process, that does not discount the existence of cognitive issues like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

According to the Mayo Clinic, signs of Alzheimer’s include repeating the same statements, misplacing items in illogical places, and forgetting names, appointments, or events. People with the disease may also forget what season it is or what day it is. Sometimes, Alzheimer's can cause patients to get lost in places that were once familiar.

Seeing a doctor to determine whether you have cognitive decline is a good idea if you feel that may be the case. There is no single test for cognitive impairment; doctors will make the determination based on a series of tests, interviews, and exams.

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Eating Your Way to Brain Health?

Food may not be able to heal Alzheimer’s, but new research from the Mount Sinai Alzheimer's Disease Research Center shows that people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's may be able to delay its progression by 20 percent by taking high doses of Vitamin E. The research appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Sano’s study showed that taking vitamin E decreased the amount of time that caregivers had to spend helping patients by about two hours a day.

Dr. Samuel Gandy, director of the Mt. Sinai Cognitive Care Center, said that nerve cells in key regions of the brain are lost when the disease begins, so keeping those cells alive for as long as possible is integral to helping patients.

For the past four years, he’s been working on a project that aims to re-generate the neurotransmitters that stimulate new cell birth. His research thus far has only targeted mice that have an Alzheimer’s risk gene.

“With the mice, it restores their behavior and their learning completely back to normal,” he told Time Warner Cable News. “So it's very dramatic.”

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