Understanding how the brain functions is often influenced by the snippets of information we glean from various sources in popular culture. Whether it’s from news outlets, conversations with acquaintances, or insights shared by healthcare professionals, these tidbits often shape our perception. What’s intriguing, however, is how certain notions persist despite lacking substantial scientific backing. They become entrenched in our collective understanding, reiterated time and again, despite the absence of solid empirical evidence supporting their validity.
Let’s review and critique a few common beliefs (or misconceptions):
1.Significant memory loss is a natural part of the aging process.
Don’t believe this one for a second. This is one of the biggest misconceptions about the aging process: that no matter what, our brains will atrophy and we’ll develop Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. In fact, until we get into our nineties, most of us will not experience significant memory or other cognitive impairment. Even then, over 50% of people remain dementia free for most of that decade. Further, we know that some people have brains that age remarkably well—a group of elders who researchers call “Superagers”—and show very few if any brain-related changes even compared to people 30 years younger. They also show memory abilities that rival those of middle-aged adults. The bottom line is that memory impairment is definitely not part of the typical aging process for most of us.
2.Our lifestyle activities in midlife don’t have much of an impact on our memory and other thinking skills later in life.
If you thought this was true, you probably wouldn’t be reading this book. We’re learning more and more about how our activity levels, diet, and overall interest or disinterest in wellness affect how cognitively healthy we are in the future. For example, we know that higher physical fitness in midlife is linked to better brain health 20+ years later. Throughout this book, we’ll discuss how engaging in different lifestyle activities will increase the chances of having a better-looking and better-working brain down the road.
3.Positive changes in the brain occur throughout life.
Years ago, neurologists thought that the brain was essentially set in stone beginning fairly early in life. Once the brain had gone through its initial development, it simply was done growing. The only changes thought to occur at that point were negative ones: loss of neurons, atrophy of the cerebral cortex, and depleted brain chemicals or neurotransmitters. Now we know the story is nowhere near that bleak. In fact, it’s almost the opposite: the brain continues to grow and adapt throughout life, into our eighties and beyond. I was struck by a study a few years ago that found that sedentary individuals in their eighties who began an exercise program experienced significant (and positive) changes in the connections between multiple brain regions. Becoming more active and making wellness-oriented lifestyle choices—at any point in life—will inevitably fine-tune the brain.
Along these lines, studies show that people who stay mentally or physically engaged experience growth in different parts of the brain—evidence of new neurons or better connections between existing neurons—and perform better on standardized cognitive tests. This refers to what we call plasticity: the ability of the brain to change, adapt, and grow over time in positive ways.
4.Forgetting something you recently learned or used to know is an early sign of dementia.
When I see patients for neuropsychological evaluations, this is often their greatest fear. They may have recently met someone whose name they can no longer recall or forgotten an appointment that had been scheduled a few months ago. Perhaps they can’t remember the name of a street they used to drive on years back. One of the fundamental tenets of brain functioning is this: we actually forget lots of things, and that’s okay. Can you name what you had for dinner four nights ago? Can you remember the name of someone you briefly met for the first time at a concert last month? In simple terms, when exposed to new information, we retain some of it (we’ll delve into methods to enhance this process later), while some remains unabsorbed.
Dementia is a different animal. Not remembering where you parked your car at a shopping mall is relatively common. Forgetting whether you drove, took the bus, or rode in a taxi to the mall is more troubling. Another example: we all misplace our keys from time to time, but few of us mistakenly put our keys in the freezer when we get home. If you’re truly concerned about cognitive changes, and others who know you are too, it might be a good time to see a neuropsychologist or neurologist for an evaluation. However, it’s crucial to highlight that many individuals encounter memory and cognitive lapses due to factors such as stress, sleep problems, chronic pain, inattention, and other elements. These factors likely do not signify a brain-related disorder in and of themselves.
5.Medications that treat memory problems are very effective.
Unfortunately, at this point, this is a misconception. We have a few medications that improve daily functioning for some people, but the gains are usually minor and short lived. There simply is no silver-bullet medication or supplement that returns one’s memory to where it once was. Don’t believe the marketing hype of the latest “brain health supplement” you hear about on TV or elsewhere.
Thankfully, we have knowledge that links social engagement, exercise, mental stimulation, and other lifestyle choices to improved cognitive skills and potentially even the prevention of dementia in certain individuals
6.If it’s going to affect us, Alzheimer’s disease usually starts in our forties or fifties.
The earliest that Alzheimer’s disease begins to affect most people is in their mid to late sixties, although mild cognitive impairment—memory or other cognitive difficulties that do not cause significant problems in daily life—can begin somewhat earlier.
There is a very rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease that can occur in midlife, but the vast majority of Alzheimer’s cases start after age 65.
7.Once your memory has begun to decline, there’s nothing you can do about it.
Also untrue. Most of us experience subtle changes to our thinking skills as we get older, beginning sometime in middle age. Our life experiences, well-established professional skills, and ability to proceed through life more efficiently than when we were younger can all provide a buffer against those mild changes. But we also know that individuals who age the best —cognitively and physically—are the ones who stay the most active.
The science also indicates that even individuals with cognitive impairment, including those with dementia, can enhance their brain skills through exercise and other types of activity.
8.We only use 10% of our brains.
Simply put, if this were accurate, brain scans such as brain magnetic resonance imaging (brain MRI) would show large areas of dead tissue. While it may be the case that people use their brains differently, unless you have a neurologic disorder such as stroke or dementia, you’re generally using all of your brain in different ways throughout the day (and night).