Prime Enemy: Free Radicals and when to save your brain

There is a specific hazard to the brain from aging. It is also the primary root cause of disease that damages the brain.

It stems from routine chemical reactions that take place in the depths of each cell—primarily in the cell’s thousands of energy factories called “mitochondria.” Denham Harman, M.D., emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Nebraska and the father of the free radical theory of aging, explains that throughout life all your cells, including your brain cells, are bombarded by attacks from unstable chemicals called oxygen free radicals that are the result of breathing, eating, simply being alive.

When the mitochondria burn oxygen to make energy for cells, byproducts called oxygen free radicals are thrown off. Typically, they are chemically transformed into missiles that attack the walls of the mitochondria and into toxins that penetrate the interior, even the DNA, and membranes of the cells themselves. Over the years free radical damage accumulates in cells and their energy production slows down. In nerve cells, attacks by free radicals cause dendrites to retract and synapses to vanish, dramatically cutting back on a cell’s communication abilities. Eventually, free radical damage threatens neuronal survival.

The longer you live, the more free radicals your cells generate, making you more susceptible to simple age-related brain damage as well as degenerative brain disorders. Such free radical damage may disrupt normal mental function. In vulnerable brains, years of free radical battering may destroy neurons, ending in Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), or another form of degenerative brain disease. The amount of cumulative damage and potential intellectual decline depend greatly on the strength of your antioxidant defenses—or free radical fighters—say many experts.

In Dr. Harman’s view, aging itself is a disease of varying severity. Some brains age much faster than others due to excessive free radical damage, much of it needless and preventable, he says. That explains why some brains are more aged and dysfunctional than other brains—why some normal people lose their memory and others don’t.

The best way to avoid and even reverse these age-induced brain deficits, according to Dr. Harman and many other researchers, is to get more antioxidants into your brain to neutralize the destructive free radicals. Such antioxidants rush to a free radical and, like a science-fiction laser, vaporize it. This strategy has produced thrilling results, identifying antioxidants as one of the most promising ways to save your brain. Boosting antioxidants and antioxidant activity has prevented and reversed memory loss in aged animals and even retarded the progression of Alzheimer’s in humans!

“Aging of the nervous system appears to involve a lifetime of insults, many of which center around a common process: free radical generation and injury.” — Russell L. Blaylock, University of Mississippi Medical Center

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Why it’s never too early to save your brain

When do you have to start worrying about a loss of brain power with age? According to Denham Harman, M.D., emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Nebraska and the father of the free-radical theory of aging, the process sets in even before you are born—in the womb. His early experiments show that pregnant mice given antioxidants had offspring that aged more slowly.

Overwhelmingly, research shows that animals fed antioxidants for a lifetime stay healthier as they age; they suffer less chronic disease, have better mental abilities, and live longer. In Dr. Harman’s view, the earlier you start to care for your brain, the less it will deteriorate through the years and the better you can expect it to function at all ages.

Alzheimer’s doesn’t begin when it is diagnosed. Nor does so-called normal age-related memory loss. Loss of brain power, scientists say, begins years earlier and mainly results from gradual undetectable hits on brain cells, hits that go unrepaired and lead to screwups in the brain’s circuitry, possibly neuronal death.

Dr. Harman points to a critical age of twenty-eight when antioxidant defenses decline significantly, making you vulnerable to age-related damage. So if you haven’t been conscientious in caring for your brain before then, its definitely time to start.

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