What happens to our brains as we get older?

In my book, Harnessing the Nine Hallmarks of Aging, I discussed the 9 key processes that happens to our body and our cells as we age. It should come as no great surprise to us that what happens in our body also happens at a cellular level in our brain. Our brains contain four main types of cells. Neurons, Oligodendrocytes, Astrocytes and Microglia.


Our neurons and their almost infinite linkages and connections are responsible for the complex levels of thought that we are privileged to have as human beings. They also are responsible for co-ordinating our subconscious processes like our gastrointestinal system, our breathing, and our heart beats and our conscious processes like movement, sight, hearing, touch and more.


Friends for life.


Unlike many of the cells in our body that are replaced and rebuilt anything from once every 5-20 days (our white blood cells) to once every 25 years (our heart cells), our neurons are with us for life. Because they are with us for life neurons don’t get the benefit of being refreshed and replenished like other cells. For this reason, the brain has evolved special care and maintenance cells that are responsible for looking after our neurons and keeping them fed and watered so that they operate well over a lifetime. These cells are called astrocytes and microglia and between them protect our neurons from infections, from breakages and generally keep the brain in good working order. Oligodendrocytes wrap around neurons and support the conduction of electrical signals that move down the neurons when they are active.


Whilst our neurons get all the attention our astrocytes are the unsung heroes of our neurological system. Astrocytes outnumber neurons and do everything from encompass the synapses to protect and provide them with messaging molecules and neurotransmitters to supporting the delicate network of blood vessels that deliver nutrients to our neurons. They protect our neurons from oxidative stress and when things go wrong or an injury occurs, they form the healing tissue and scars so that we go on to remember another day. When our neurons need more energy astrocytes donate mitochondria, the cellular power pack, so that the neuron has the energy it needs.


Microglia are the roving protectors of the brain, they are the brain’s immune system and fight against infections and help repair brain tissue when injuries occur. They are constantly moving around the brain on the look out for anything that threatens our brain and its function. Microglia also gently guide our neurons as new connections are made between other neurons and because of this they are a very important part of helping the memory formation process. Microglia also dynamically support synaptic function and strengthen them or prune them as needed.


The Nine Hallmarks of Brain Aging.


All the nine Hallmarks of Aging; DNA damage, epigenetic alterations, telomere shortening, mitochondrial dysfunction, stem cell fatigue, intercellular communication decline, senescent cell build up, loss of proteostasis (the build-up of dysfunctional proteins) and deregulated nutrient sensing; act over a lifetime to compromise our brain function.


One of the most common neurodegenerative diseases, Alzheimer’s disease is well known to be caused by a build up of plaques and tangles in our brain. Alzheimer’s disease gives us unique insight into the importance of proteostasis which is the process the body uses to make sure proteins are correctly formed and folded in the cell. The plaques and tangles are formed by proteins that breakdown and build up inside and surrounding our neurons over time. They affect the ability of our neurons to operate effectively. We all get plaques and tangles as we age but not all of us get Alzheimer’s disease and it’s now thought that it is the combination of plaques and tangles plus oxidative stress that conspire to activate the disease process. Alzheimer’s Disease is sometimes called type three diabetes because of its link to nutrient sensing decline across the body and the development of metabolic problems that ultimately affect the brain.


Parkinson’s disease on the other hand, is thought to be closely related to mitochondrial dysfunction and resulting cellular power loss, brain cells becoming overwhelmed with oxidative stress and subsequent to this, losing the ability to remove toxins and repair and maintain brain cells. The result is a loss of neurons in a key area of the body associated with movement.


How to Slow the Brain Drain.


Advances in our understanding of the processes that affect our brain means that we are starting to unpack ways to support brain function as we age. We know that keeping active both physically and mentally stimulates the brain and slows decline. We know that managing stress and maintaining good sleeping habits are also important. As is minimising exposure to toxins like alcohol and pesticides. Lastly, ensuring that you have a healthy diet also is brain protective. Up until recently these were the best strategies, but we now have access to new and clinically proven supplements that can fight against the 9 Hallmarks of Aging but with a particular slant for protecting brain cells.


Compounds like 2-HOBA (Hobamine) from Himalayan Tartary Buckwheat lower the damage from oxidative stress in the brain and help reduce the damage to proteins that become plaques and tangles. NMN supplementation in conjunction with Astaxanthin and Pterostilbene delivers key mitochondrial and cellular repair process support. Fisetin, an extract from strawberries, helps the brain identify and remove senescent astrocytes and microglia and reduces overall brain inflammation that accumulates as we age. A proprietary formulation of Cats Claw combined with Oolong tea has been shown to break up the plagues and tangles at a cellular level so that they can be removed by the brain’s immune cells, the microglia. Lastly, we can support brain function by providing it with the precursors to special memory neurotransmitters and the building blocks of neuronal membranes with AlphaGPC.


Better choices over our lives deliver memories that will last a lifetime.


By taking care of our brains with great lifestyle choices and by supplementing with key ingredients before we need them, we give our brains the best chance to age alongside our bodies with ease and grace and so that we don’t lose those amazing memories that we have spent a lifetime acquiring.