Inflammaging and the Aging Brain: An Overview
Our brains are complex and intricate organs that are necessary for our daily activities, and we all hope that our brains function well as we age. However, the aging process changes our brains and cognitive functions in many ways.
Cognitive functions are the mental processes that our brains use to learn, think, and communicate. Our cognitive functions are what allow us to make sense of the world and to interact with it in meaningful ways. As we age, our brain undergoes natural changes that affect our cognitive function.
A key factor that causes problems with our cognitive function is inflammaging. Inflammaging is the accelerated aging process that occurs due to chronic inflammation in the body. Inflammaging contributes to age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
In this blog, we will explore how the brain and associated cognitive functions change as we age due to inflammaging. The following sections explore the impacts of inflammaging on the brain and how certain lifestyle factors contribute to inflammaging effects on the brain.
Exploring the Connection Between Inflammaging and the Aging Brain
It has been well documented that natural changes in the brain and body due to age affect our cognitive function. A 2006 review describes that aging causes natural physical and chemical changes to the brain. In general, these changes include:
· Decreases in size
· Less able to form or change neuron connections
· Decreases in dopamine and serotonin levels
· Changes and greater chance for damage to blood vessels
These changes cause our cognitive function to decline. Severe inflammaging causes these changes to happen earlier and to a worse degree. This may lead to Alzheimer’s disease, other dementia, or even stroke occurring at a younger age. Further, inflammaging increases the risk of depression and other psychiatric conditions.
So, how does inflammaging contribute to a greater risk of these health conditions?
A 2022 study discusses that inflammaging increases the rate of detrimental cellular changes. These cellular changes include:
· Poor sugar and fat metabolism
· Increased reactive oxygen species
· Impaired DNA repair
· Increased rates of neuron death
· Impaired ability to form or change neuron connections
These cause our brains to undergo structural and chemical changes that lead to poor cognitive function.
Further, inflammaging causes other changes to our bodies that can affect our cognitive function.
According to a 2019 review, the second leading cause of dementia occurs due to poor blood vessel function. This category of dementia is called “Vascular Dementia.”
Inflammaging can cause blood vessels in the brain to harden or become dysfunctional. When this happens, your brain’s blood vessels are not able to deliver blood and nutrients to meet the brain’s needs. This causes neurons to die, which causes cognitive impairment.
In severe cases, blood vessel damage in the brain can cause strokes. Strokes occur when a blood vessel becomes blocked or when a blood vessel bursts. Both cause cell death in the regions affected by the stroke. High blood pressure greatly increases the risk of blood vessel dysfunction and stroke. According to a 2014 study, high blood pressure can result from inflammaging.
All the changes listed above can cause cognitive impairment to affect our lives. With these changes, we may have difficulties with:
Making good decisions
One study has found that impaired cognitive function lowers quality of life. So, maintaining our cognitive function as we age could improve our happiness.
Lifestyle and Cognitive Functioning: Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Brain
As discussed in the previous blog, many lifestyle factors can limit inflammaging. Research shows that lifestyle modifications are the primary preventative measure.
So, how can we reduce the effects of inflammaging on our cognitive function? According to a 2017 review, these factors lead to optimized cognitive function as we age:
· No smoking
· Limited alcohol intake
· Getting quality sleep
· Healthy blood pressure (under 120/80mmHg)
· Healthy cholesterol levels (under 200mg/dL)
· Healthy blood glucose levels (under 100mg/dL)
Exercise lowers blood pressure and promotes healthy levels of cholesterol and blood glucose. It is also associated with:
· Better decision making
· Reductions in the loss of brain mass as we age.
· Healthier blood vessels
· Better mental health
A diet higher in antioxidants and lower in inflammatory foods (like high-fat or high-sugar foods) is known to reduce oxidative damage and levels of pro-inflammatory markers. Low alcohol intake also reduces inflammation and the risk of blood vessel damage or stroke.
Finally, good management of your stress levels reduces the impacts of inflammaging. A 2017 study found that yoga and meditation improved stress regulation and reduced the levels of pro-inflammatory markers.
When you incorporate these practices, you could limit the impacts of inflammaging. This can lead you to have better cognitive function and a happier, healthier life.
Daniel Chantigian, MS, is exploring the science, causes, and effects of inflammaging. This blog is the third part of a four-part series.
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