Health & Wellness: What’s the underlying physiological struggle with aging? Cellular oxidation? Inflammation?
Dr. Gary Small: All of the above. Biologically we are not meant to live forever. Inflammation is a normal process for repair of damage to our cells. As we age, however, there seems to be too much of it. In the brain, we see evidence of inflammation in areas of degeneration. In Alzheimer’s patients, for example, inside the amyloid plaques, we have identified signs of inflammation, and anti-inflammatory strategies may protect the brain from such damage and preserve memory
abilities. Because anti-inflammatory drugs have lots of side effects, we are now studying less toxic ways to reduce that inflammation: healthy diet, exercise, and sleep. We’re also studying whether a daily curcumin tablet, which is
an anti-inflammatory, may protect the brain.
H&W: Do we have the capacity to live longer?
GS: There is that capacity if you look at scientific evidence. Average life expectancy for someone born in 1900 was 47; most children born today
can expect to live to age 80. More studies are showing that it is not just up to genetic makeup. Exercise, nutrition, and mental stimulation can extend healthy longevity.
H&W: What is brain training?
GS: We know that people who go to college have a lower rate of Alzheimer’s than those who do not. Animal studies show that increased mental engagement lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s, and mice raised in cages with lots of toys and mental stimulation have a larger hippocampus. Studies have also shown that training older people to search online caused dramatic increases in neural activity. The bottom line is you have to work out your brain cells, whether that is through memory exercises or stimulating games and puzzles.
H&W: How does exercise play into brain health and longevity?
GS: Exercise helps a heart become more effective in pumping oxygen and nutrients to the brain. When you exercise, the body also produces brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that gets neurons to sprout branches that communicate more effectively with other neurons. My advice
is to take a walk and get your brain cells to talk.
H&W: What scientific discoveries are you most excited about?
GS: Our group is now studying what occurs when we combine physical and mental exercise simultaneously. We anticipate that we’ll find a synergistic effect. When someone is in that zone of mental clarity during exercise, we hypothesize that learning capacity will improve.
What can we glean from centenarians?
There are areas, such as Sardinia, Italy, and Okinawa, Japan, where clusters of people live to 100 and older. In these regions, people tend to have healthy brain studies and eat foods rich in omega-3 fats and antioxidant fruits and vegetables. They also are active and maintain close social ties.