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WHITE MATTER – Your Brain’s Information Highway to a longer Life

My childhood superpower was remembering the details of every address, and every phone number my family and friends ever had. This party game continued into adulthood where I went onto remember the name of every person I met, added bonus of being a great help to both my parents who were notoriously bad with connecting names and faces. And it’s definitely been a rewarding professional superpower – people are both thrilled and surprised when you remember them from an encounter years before.  

I have always believed this superpower to be a measure of my cognitive ability but I have also read, and seen up close in family members, that getting older commonly leads to cognitive decline, with short-medium term memory the first to go!

Why do our short-term memory, and general cognitive abilities, decline with age? Is this process unavoidable and inevitable?

Turns out our brains are intricate communication hubs, and white matter acts as the essential network of highways that allows different regions to talk to each other. It’s called “white matter” because the nerve fibres are covered in a protective sheath called myelin, which gives the tissue its white colour. This web of fatty tissue, crucial for transmitting signals, is increasingly linked to cognitive health.

Recent research is shedding light on how keeping this white matter network in top shape might be the key to staying sharp and potentially living longer. One study published in Nature Communications looked at over 3,500 participants in the UK Biobank. It found that the health of white matter microstructure, as measured by diffusion MRI, declined with age suggesting that age-related white matter deterioration may contribute to cognitive decline.

However, there is hope. Research on ‘super-agers’– older adults with cognitive abilities that rival much younger individuals – offers clues.

Researchers analyzing the white matter of super-agers over a 5-year period found that despite comparable overall white matter health with typical older adults, super-agers exhibited superior microstructure in specific frontal region fibres which are associated with executive function and memory, suggesting resistance to age-related cognitive decline.

This suggests that maintaining white matter health could be a critical factor in defying age-related cognitive decline.

Stanford Centre on Longevity studies have shown that regular physical activity can increase white matter volume and improve its microstructure. This is likely because exercise promotes the growth of new nerve cells and strengthens existing connections.

Here’s the good news: you don’t need to become a marathon runner. Even moderate-intensity exercise for 30 minutes most days of the week and incorporating brain-boosting exercises like coordination drills, balance challenges, or activities that require quick decision-making, all of which can benefit cognitive function and white matter health.

While research on white matter and longevity is ongoing, the emerging evidence is promising. By prioritizing brain health through exercise, diet, and potentially other lifestyle modifications, we might be paving the way for not just sharper minds but also longer, healthier lives.

Beyond Exercise: White Matter boosting routines

Challenge your brain: Regularly engaging in mentally stimulating activities like puzzles, learning a new language, or playing chess can help keep your brain’s communication channels firing on all cylinders.

Brain Training Games: brain training apps challenge memory, focus, and problem-solving skills, potentially promoting neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt and form new connections.

Learning New Skills: learning a new instrument, language, or dance routine can be a fun way to challenge your brain and stimulate white matter growth.

Quality sleep is key: when you’re sleep deprived, your brain struggles to consolidate memories and form new connections. Aim for 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night.

Manage stress: chronic stress can damage brain cells and hinder white matter health. Relaxation techniques like meditation or deep breathing can help manage stress levels.

Don’t underestimate social connections: social interaction is vital for cognitive health. Nurturing relationships and staying connected to friends and family can positively impact your brain’s communication network.

Food, glorious food: mix those social connections with a meal rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains!

Latest News early: new research is demonstrating we can boost our ‘white matter’ and even reverse its decline. And once again, as is (almost) always the case, the key is Lifestyle Medicine: using our lifestyle as our medicine.

I am on a mission back to my earlier superpowers!

See you soon at Be Well!

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Be Well is the first-of-its- kind urban health, wellness and lifestyle club in Melbourne, Australia.  Informed by the science of longevity, Be Well nurtures the relationship you have with yourself and others, to optimise your lifestyle, and live your longest, best life.