There are varying degrees of change and there are also many different reasons for that change. The two main forms are those we decide to make and those that are thrust upon us.
In this series of posts I am going to be looking at three elements that are subject to both enforced and voluntary change. Physically, mentally and emotionally we are programmed for change as our body and brain develop and age.
Today I am taking a look at the enforced hardware changes in the brain that affect us all. Also the voluntary choices we make during that process that also impact software function, particularly when we do not upgrade certain programmes.
All of us as we get into our 60s notice physical changes that are obvious when we look in the mirror and also when we exert ourselves physically. We are also aware of changes to the facility with which our major organs deal with their own aging process and the effects of a lifetime of dietary and lifestyle choices, imposed or voluntarily applied.
In all my discussions with those in their 70s, 80s and 90s there has been definitely one fear above all others that trumps the usual aging issues. Dementia. Apart from the fact that nobody wants to lose control over their mental capacity there is also the fear of being a burden, of being isolated from friends and family and perhaps institutionalised.
The media does not help with daily reports about how dementia is going to be rampant in the aging population and that nobody is prepared for the millions that will be affected by the disease. Scientists are little better with confusing and conflicting research, usually perpetrated upon species other than our own, which points to hundreds of causes from cooking in aluminium pots to dental X-rays being the cause of this devastating disease. There also seems to be daily ‘scientific’ strategies to prevent the disease which more often than not are at odds with each other.
My opinion is this. There is a completely natural growth, development, aging, degenerating cycle in brain health. We can do nothing about some of the phases that the organ goes through in its lifetime. We can however influence a number of factors that support the brain on its journey and even if we cannot prevent the inevitable erosion of general function we can at least ensure that we do not cause further damage by the lifestyle choices we make along the way. It is important to remember that only 100 years ago the average lifespan for a man was 50 and for a woman 54. Today that is nearer to 78 for men and 84 for women. This means that for the first time in our human history we are most of us living long enough for our brain cells to go through the aging process themselves.
For those who are mothers it is also absolutely essential that they make the right choices for their unborn babies who cannot make those choices for themselves. As you will see as I go through the development of the brain, those first 6 months in the womb are absolutely critical for brain health.
The bottom line is that if you understand how something works it holds fewer mysteries and less fear. Appreciating and respecting the brain for the miracle that it is, will also encourage you to support it and its function for a lifetime.
How the brain develops.
We are hard wired and from the moment of conception there will be enforced changes to the structure and function of our brains. Whilst the process of development is beyond our control, there is still a powerful external influence on how well that programming is carried out. Before birth the health, nutrition, environment and lifestyle choices of the mother can impact both the rate of brain development and the health of the brain cells. After birth during the formative years up to age 15, environment, nutrition and stimulation of those brain cells is critical and if they do not receive sufficient amounts of all of these there is a chance that irreversible damage will occur.
The development of the brain does not follow a straight upward line it comes in waves with certain parts of the brain achieving full function at different times. There is however a sequence that every brain will follow.
At conception the sperm and the egg form a single cell combining to form the genetic blueprint. Over 60% of our genes are committed to forming our brain which is after all the control centre for all our other functions. Around three to four weeks into development a thin layer of cells form in the embryo, which then fold and fuse to form a liquid filled tube. This minute start is vital as it is the first stage in the development of the brain and spinal cord. This is followed by the production of nerve cells called neurons.
A miracle occurs as cells in the neural tube accelerate at an amazing rate reaching around 15million neurons an hour. This rate of growth continues for the first six months of a foetus’s development.
At around 14 weeks with millions of cells in place a change occurs as they begin to migrate to specific parts of the neural network and the inbuilt GPS usually sends them to the correct address. Some do however get lost or damaged in transit and die off.
Rarely however, some do reach the wrong destination and form incorrect connections and this coding error can lead to certain disorders such as autism or epilepsy, slower physical and mental development and in some cases more severe mental health issues.
At 20 weeks about half the existing cells are shed and those that remain are organised into compartments within the brain that govern virtually every automatic function in our bodies and also our senses and skills.
At birth we have around 100 billion brain cells and we begin the next stage in our development. Most of the connections between the neurons are barely formed and will need to be strengthened by the time we reach the age of three. A baby has most of the senses working at birth such as sight, smell, hearing and the ability to respond to touch. Immediately with that first breath the brain kicks into overdrive and forms trillions of connections and pathways enabling learning.
As with the early development of the brain, it is vital that the environment, nutrition and stimulation are available to enable the brain to process and learn from experience.
These experiences trigger the electrical activity necessary to enable the brain to develop connections and grow. These connections are called synapses. The connections are formed by each neuron putting out a long tentacle like fibre called an axon. The neuron uses the axon to send messages to other neurons. The messages are sent as electrical signals and picked up by thousands of short, hair like fibres called dendrites (also produced by the neurons). Each neuron is able to connect up with thousands of other neurons.
It is then that ‘practice makes perfect’ comes into play as repeated experiences, sights, smells or movements form well-worn paths within the brain that we remember for a lifetime. By age two our brains have developed trillions of these pathways and although they continue to form throughout our lifetime they have reached their highest density.
Our higher functioning ability is usually operational by age three and we begin to think for ourselves, use language effectively and have developed personality traits.
After three years old we continue to absorb knowledge and experience like a sponge and the constant practice etches the functions into the brain. If that absorption ceases for some reason and we stop practicing certain functions, we can lose them completely as the brain discards little used pathways in favour of more travelled routes.
This pruning process and strengthening of the connections in the brain is most active in the teen years. The prefrontal cortex is the last to mature and it involves the control of impulses and decision-making. Anyone who has had children going through this phase will have a clear understanding of the ‘challenges’ that arise during this phase! This powerful surge in the brain is accompanied by the added influx of hormones which results in a chemical and electrical ‘perfect storm’.
There is a strong element of voluntary change at this stage of the development of the brain. It is around this age that we start making choices about what we eat, the amount of exercise we take, to take up smoking or drinking alcohol and to stop formal education. All these elements will affect the few years left of brain development we have left and therefore our mental capacity.
The brain continues to defrag the mainframe and the strongest connections survive. By our early 20s our brain development is matured into a powerful and functioning organ with approximately 500 trillion pathways.
At around 30 years old the physical changes will wind down in the brain and this is where even more of a voluntary contribution to growth, experience and maintenance is required to keep the pathways clear of debris such as plaque so that they continue to function efficiently. This phase lasts for the next 35 or 40 years. The brain cells are active and we contribute to their health by diet, stimulation and avoiding lifestyle choices that kill them off. Such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol, not taking exercise, eating a diet rich in components that block our arteries and blood flow to the brain……you get the idea.
After 65 years old there is a natural dying off of cells in certain parts of the brain. This does not mean that you will lose all your mental capacity, but little things will begin to make an impact on your daily functioning. For example brain cells lost from the Hippocampus where we process memories will result in forgetfulness.
You are NOT destined to develop full blown dementia and you can make sure that you support your brain function by eating a healthy balanced diet, getting plenty of oxygen and regular exercise, reducing stress and interacting with others and events to stimulate the pathways to remain open. More so than at any other time in the lifespan of your brain, the voluntary choices and changes you make to your way of life will bring huge benefits.
Of course if you make it to 100 then you might opt like I have to take up everything I gave up to get there!!
In the meantime you will find plenty on healthier options you can enjoy in the Brain Health directory.
You will find posts that look at nutritional and lifestyle support for the brain in this directory.
The first post in Change – Physical change can be found here.
Next time – Emotional Change. Instinct versus nurture and experience.
Photographs Justfoodforhealth.com and Pinterest