To some extent, cognitive decline is a normal part of the aging process. It’s in the same category as stiffening joints, hardening arteries, and graying hair.
The reason for this is simple. As neurons age, the speed at which the brain functions decreases. This is not to be confused with cognitive impairment, which is often the cause of some type of damage or disease that speeds up decline. While not everyone will experience cognitive impairment, most people will experience some element of cognitive decline because the simple fact is, we all age. Causes of cognitive decline beyond simply getting older may vary. Environmental and nutritional factors can play a big role in determining the extent of cognitive decline in an individual as well as the time frame in which it occurs. But as previously stated, it is something we will all experience to one extent or another.
When Does Cognitive Decline Begin?
In years past, research typically agreed that in reasonably healthy individuals, cognitive decline was not common in those under the age of 60. However, research published in the peer reviewed British Medical Journal suggests that cognitive decline can begin as early as age 45.
The ramifications of the research are significant as they highlight the need for people under the age of 60 to observe a healthier lifestyle. This is line with research from the Alzheimer’s Association which stated in its 2018 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures that changes in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s can begin to take place as much as 20 years before symptoms appear. Initially, the brain will compensate for changes that occur, but as neuron damage becomes more significant, cognitive decline begins to take hold. Eventually, the decline can become more evident in the form of memory loss and disorientation.
Implications for Public Health
At a time when roughly 10,000 Americans turn 65 each day, cognitive decline has broader implications for public health. In the United States alone, there are at least 5 million people living with dementia. Worldwide, that number increases to 47.5 million, with Alzheimer’s cases accounting for 70% of those cases. The vast majority of these cases are people over the age of 65.
Dementia has far reaching impacts beyond the individual who suffers from it as it presents increased stress for family and caregivers, but it should be noted that experiencing cognitive decline is not necessarily a sign of dementia. However, in either case, seeking treatment that can slow cognitive decline is a good idea for anyone who exhibits symptoms.
Treatments for Cognitive Decline
Some elements of cognitive decline can be slowed simply by living a healthy lifestyle. The authors of the BMJ report say that there is a strong link between cardiovascular health and cognitive health.
For those who are already experiencing elements of cognitive decline, however, there are treatments becoming available that can slow the progression of neurodegenerative conditions and improve quality of life.
One such example is hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT). This type of therapy has been shown to improve the performance of subjects in both motor and cognitive single tasks or in multitasking (cognitive and motor) compared to subjects under normal conditions, according to a study published in the journal Neural Regeneration Research in 2018.
Researchers are examining the cellular, molecular, and system-level effects of HBOT on brain performance, and whether it can be used to reverse or reduce the effects of neurological disorders. Studies have shown that with repeated treatments over a long period of time, HBOT can have a positive impact on ischemic brain injuries, which are cases where blood supply to tissue is restricted, causing a shortage of oxygen needed to keep tissue alive. Ischemic strokes are the most common type of stroke, making HBOT a promising therapy as it has been shown to “significantly improve neurological functions and life quality in stroke patients, even at chronic late stages, after the stroke has already occurred,” according to the Neural Regeneration Research article.