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Regaining your cognitive sparkle

Right now, one-tenth of people over 65 and one-third of people aged 85 and above will develop dementia.

RetireAustralia Perry Bartlett
Professor Perry Bartlett

As more Australians age and live longer, it’s an unspoken fear: Will I still enjoy my life in a few years from now?

Yet Professor Perry Bartlett, a leading Australian neuroscientist, believes cognitive decline is not inevitable.

The inaugural director of the Queensland Brain Institute at The University of Queensland, Perry was awarded the CSL Florey Medal in 2015 for his discoveries that have transformed understanding of the brain. On Australia Day this year, he was awarded Queensland Senior Australian of the Year for his contributions to neuroscience.

Importantly, Perry believes increasing age does not have to mean increasing dementia, and any natural decline in brain function and structure can be prevented and reversed.

“Changes do often occur during ageing, and some parts of the brain are especially vulnerable,” he wrote in a recent article for Australian Quarterly.

“But again, vulnerability does not mean inevitability.”

The hippocampus, for example, which turns visuals, smells, sounds and emotions into memory, is particularly vulnerable to shrinkage with age. Research shows it is also highly ‘plastic’ and shrinkage can be reversed.

Perry said a trial he is running of 300 participants aged 65–85 is helping to work out what the “sweet spot” is for exercise to prevent or slow down dementia.

“People would be aware that exercise is said to be beneficial. But we can’t answer this: how much and why?”

Through high-end imaging, measuring changes in blood chemistry and more, Perry hopes he and his team will find the answer.

Perry turns 70 in May this year and says his age, at this stage of his career, “is just making me go quicker”.

“Now I have skin in the game.”

What helps cognitive function?

Travel and languages: “Studies of hippocampal changes in the aged have shown that people who have had a more active life, exploring new countries and studying new languages, show less shrinkage in later life,” Perry said.

Education: People who have higher education qualifications have less incidence of dementia, but this could be because they had better functioning brains to start with.

Diet: The jury’s still out but a longitudinal study in England of nearly 2 million people showed the higher someone’s body mass index, the lower the rate of dementia. Obese people have a 30 per cent less incidence of dementia than people of a normal weight.

Exercise: The right amount of exercise encourages neural stem cells to produce new neurons.

Social activity: “The link between dementia and depression is very strong. Clearly, things to promote social interaction are very important to do.”

This story originally appeared in Ageless magazine, 2017 winter edition

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