Can We Change How Our Brains Age? Scientists Think It’s Possible

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Can We Change How Our Brains Age? These Scientists Think It’s Possible

It has long been known that our lifestyle can keep us healthy longer. Now scientists are wondering whether new technology could also help slow the aging process of our brains by tracking what happens to them as we get older.

On a sunny morning, 76-year-old Marijke, born in the Netherlands, and her husband Tom welcomed me for breakfast at their home in Loma Linda, an hour east of Los Angeles.

Oatmeal, chai seeds, and berries were served, but no processed, sugary cereals or coffee. A breakfast as pure as Loma Linda’s mission.

Loma Linda has been identified as one of the world’s so-called Blue Zones, places where people live longer than average. In this case, it’s the town’s Seventh-day Adventist community that lives longer.

They generally do not drink alcohol or caffeine, follow a vegetarian or even vegan diet, and consider it their religious duty to take the best care of their bodies.

This is their “health message,” as they call it, and it has put them on the map: the city has been the subject of research for decades into why its residents live longer, better lives.

Dr. Gary Fraser of Loma Linda University told me that members of the Seventh-day Adventist community there can expect not only a longer life span, but also a longer “health span” – that is, the time spent in good health – of four to five extra years for women and seven extra years for men.

Marijke and Tom had moved to the city later in life, but both were now firmly established in the community.

Image caption, Marijke and Tom – pictured here with Lara Lewington – are part of the Loma Linda community

There is no great secret to Loma Linda. Its citizens simply live very healthy lives, stay mentally stimulated and appreciate the community that religion can often provide.

There are regular lectures on healthy living, musical gatherings and exercise classes.

I spoke to Judy, who lives in a nursing home with 112 others where she always had the opportunity to have “heart-warming, brain-opening conversations,” she told me.

“What I didn’t realize is how important socialization is to your brain… without socialization, it’s like the brain shrinks and disappears,” Judy said.

Science has long recognized the benefits of social interactions and preventing loneliness.

Nowadays it is also possible to find out whose brains are aging faster than necessary. In this way we can map these people and possibly treat them better preventively in the future.

As we move to more personalized, predictive and preventative care models, early diagnosis will become critical across all areas of healthcare, enabled by the incredible capabilities of AI and big data.

Lara Lewington travels to California to meet scientists and experts who are researching our brain health and whether we can change the way our brains age.

Andrei Irimia, an associate professor of gerontology and computational biology at the University of Southern California, showed me computer models that can determine how quickly our brains age and how to predict their decline.

He created them using MRI scans, data from 15,000 brains and the power of artificial intelligence, giving him insight into the development of both healthy aging brains and brains undergoing a disease process, such as dementia.

“It’s a very sophisticated way of looking at patterns that we as humans don’t necessarily know about, but the AI ​​algorithm can pick up on,” he said.

Prof. Irimia has of course taken a look inside my head.

I had had a functional MRI scan before my visit and after analyzing the results, Prof. Irimia told me that I had a brain age that was eight months older than my chronological age (although the part that controls speech apparently didn’t age that much. I could have told him that). However, Prof. Irimia suggested that the results were within a two-year margin of error.

Private companies are also starting to commercialize this technology. One company, Brainkey, offers the service in several clinics around the world. The founder, Owen Philips, told me that in the future it should be easier to get an MRI.

“It’s becoming more and more accessible for people to get MRI scans, and the images they get are getting better and better,” he said.

“I don’t want to be nerdy. But technology has just gotten to a point where we can see things much earlier than we could in the past. And that means we can understand exactly what’s happening in the brain of an individual patient. With AI, we can support that.”

Contrary to what Prof Irimia’s analysis of my MRI scan had told me, Brainkey’s estimate knocked a year off the biological age of my brain. I was also presented with a 3D-printed model of it, which looked substantial and, I was assured, life-size.

Image caption, Lara Lewington with the life-size 3D-printed model of her own brain

The aim is not only to target treatment more precisely, but also to be able to quantify how well the interventions work.

The dramatic increase in life expectancy over the past 200 years has led to a range of age-related diseases. I wondered if we all lived long enough, would dementia be knocking on our doors?

Prof. Irimia said that this is a theory that has been researched by many, but not yet proven. She added that the goal is to find a way to reduce dementia, hopefully beyond our life expectancy.

And all of this brings us back to the same point. Every scientist and doctor, and even those Blue Zoners, say that lifestyle is key. A good diet, staying active, mentally stimulated and happy are crucial to how our brains age.

According to Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and author of the bestselling book Why We Sleep, there’s another important factor at play.

“Sleep is the single most effective thing you can do every day to reset your brain and your body,” he preached. “There is no function of your mind that is not miraculously enhanced when you sleep, or demonstrably impaired when you don’t get enough sleep.”

He talked about our brain’s cleansing system, which flushes out beta-amyloid and tau proteins during sleep, “two of the major culprits underlying Alzheimer’s.”

Changes in sleep patterns are also associated with dementia. Prof. Walker described how we don’t just see this in our 60s or 70s, but that it can start in our 30s. So identifying those changes through sleep tracking could potentially become a “model of midlife prevention.”

Fauna Bio, a biotech company on the outskirts of San Francisco, is collecting data on ground squirrels during and after hibernation. In this state of torpor, as it is called, the squirrels’ body temperature drops and their metabolic rate is reduced to just 1% of normal.

During this time, they appear to be able to regrow neurons and recreate the connections their brains had lost. The company’s goal is to try to create drugs to replicate this process in humans, without having to spend six months underground. Even though some people may long for that.

Untreated depression has also been shown to increase the risk of dementia. Stanford University professor Leanne Williams has identified a way to ‘visualise’ some forms of depression on the brain using MRI scans, and see if treatment has worked.

This can help scientists gain more insight into the underlying causes of mental illnesses such as depression, and can also help measure how a patient’s treatment is progressing.

Few people have more faith in science to achieve longevity than Bryan Johnson, the tech entrepreneur who is spending millions trying to reverse his biological age.

With dozens of supplements, 19-hour fasts a day, workouts that make him look like he could burst at any moment and a range of (sometimes controversial) treatments, he hopes to turn back the clock.

But as 103-year-old Mildred, whom I visited in Loma Linda, put it forcefully, “You absolutely have to be very careful about your diet, that’s true, but I’m not one for, ‘You have to do this, and this, and this, and absolutely do not touch!‘”. She thinks it’s more important that we live a little, and let’s face it, she should know that.

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