Following my 12-hour surgery last year, I was plagued with what I learned is popularly called “anesthesia brain,” a relative of “chemo brain.”
Among the symptoms are
• Difficulty concentrating
• Difficulty finding the right word
• Difficulty multitasking
• Being disorganized
• Feeling of mental fogginess
• Short attention span
Inability to concentrate, mental fogginess and shortened attention span were my biggest difficulties. For a few weeks, it affected my ability to carry on conversations, to read and even to follow a movie or TV plot.
I had no trouble knowing the meaning of each word, but there was a lag time of a second or two in putting together the meaning of an entire sentence – just enough for me to notice (and be irritated by) the slowdown of my brain. I learned to take notes when doctors were speaking with me so not to lose important information.
Nurses in the hospital assured me this was a temporary consequence of long anesthesia and that it would dissipate over time.
Fortunately it did, but the experience of the temporary diminished cognition got me wondering how anesthesia brain compares to the brain changes that can accompany old age. The U.S. National Institute on Aging (NIA) tell us that among common changes to thinking in old age are
• Increased difficulty finding words and recalling names
• More problems with multi-tasking
• Mild decreases in the ability to pay attention
Sounds a lot like anesthesia brain to me. In fact, however, I couldn't multi-task well when I was 20 or 30, and recalling words and names? Don't even ask. But the NIA also tells us that elders have more knowledge and inisight due to a lifetime of experience and contrary to all-too-common myth, can still
• Learn new things
• Create new memories
• Improve vocabulary and language skills
In a story from last year, Medical News Today (MNT) tells us that
”As we age, all our body systems gradually decline - including the brain. 'Slips of the mind' are associated with getting older. People often experienced those same slight memory lapses in their 20s and yet did not give it a second thought.
“Older individuals often become anxious about memory slips due to the link between impaired memory and Alzheimer's disease. However, Alzheimer's and other dementias are not a part of the normal aging process.”
Here is some of what is known about normal physical changes to the brain as we grow old – again from MNT:
Brain mass: Shrinkage in the frontal lobe and hippocampus - areas involved in higher cognitive function and encoding new memories - starting around the age of 60 or 70 years.
Cortical density: Thinning of the outer-ridged surface of the brain due to declining synaptic connections. Fewer connections may contribute to slower cognitive processing.
White matter: White matter consists of myelinated nerve fibers that are bundled into tracts and carry nerve signals between brains cells. Myelin is thought to shrink with age, and as a result, slow processing and reduce cognitive function.
Neurotransmitter systems: Researchers suggest that the brain generates less (sic) chemical messengers with aging, and it is this decrease in dopamine, acetylcholine, serotonin, and norepinephrine activity that may play a role in declining cognition and memory and increased depression.
(Did you notice all the weasel words: may, is thought to, suggests, etc.? It can't be helped with science's current level of understanding.)
Nevertheless, eventual results from such studies will help researchers discover what therapies and strategies can help slow or prevent brain decline. Meanwhile, you probably know the current prescription to help preserve cognitive ability:
• Regular physical activity
• Be socially active
• Manage stress
• Eat healthy foods
• Get enough sleep
• Pursue intellectually stimulating activities
In regard to the last item, sales of so-called brain games bring in millions if not billions of dollars a year to their purveyors who promise their products will improve or, at least maintain memory and brain function. Studies are showing otherwise.
A year ago, Psychology Today reported on a study from The Journal of Neuroscience:
”The results were disappointing. There was no effect on brain activity, no effect on cognitive performance, and no effect on decision-making.
“The participants who trained with Lumosity did improve on the cognitive assessment, but so did the control group and so did a group who played no games whatsoever.
“In other words, it wasn’t the game that was having an effect. Kable attributes the gains to the fact that everyone had taken the test once before.
Research into ageing brains is not far enough along for us to have much understanding of who may be afflicted with declining function and who not.
Meanwhile, I'm sticking with those suggestions for maintaining a healthy brain because it is well known that they also contribute to good health overall.