Cognitive decline is one of the most terrifying aspects of aging.
A study from 2022 found something that could help us avoid it.
They found that lower muscle mass was associated with faster cognitive decline.
When we think about getting older, we often focus on the impact aging has on our bodies, which makes sense because that’s what’s easy to see in the mirror and see in the lives of the people around us.
What can be scary even to consider is how aging affects our cognitive abilities. Few things are more disturbing than not knowing who you are, where you are, what you’re supposed to be doing, or why your body feels the way it does.
Cognitive decline and diseases like dementia and Alzheimers turn our minds into impenetrable prisons, and what sucks even worse is that by the time someone is definitively diagnosed, it’s too late to make any real progress in reversing the disease.
Doom and gloom, right?
Only if you’re not proactive.
Lifestyle plays a massive role in whether or not a person experiences greater than normal age-related cognitive decline.
Things like nutrition, sleep, and environmental factors all affect the functioning of our brains and nervous systems, but today we’re talking about something different.
We’re talking about muscle mass.
As it turns out, muscle is armor for your brain.
Many of the conditions that increase your odds of developing cognitive issues as you age overlap with the ones that lead to loss of muscle mass.
Limited anabolic hormones
What’s crazy is that using the muscle you have is also one of if not the most effective ways to minimize your risk of developing these conditions, which means if we want healthy brains for our entire lives, we need to prioritize building and maintaining muscle mass.
So muscle helps protect our brains, but how does it work?
It doesn’t seem like something used to move our bodies should have that much of an effect on our cognitive health.
Muscle helps keep you mentally sharp on multiple fronts.
At the chemical level, when you use your muscles, they secrete neurotrophic factors, which help the cells in your brain and nervous system function better and be more resilient.
The effect of these molecules is significant.
One of the well-known ones is called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF for short. It works as a kind of Miracle Grow for your brain. It helps neurons, cells in your brain, maintain proper connections and establish new connections, aka learn and remember new things, which is vital for healthy and happy aging.
That means the more muscle you have as you age, the greater your access to neurotrophic factors, which are a first-line defense against the destruction/damage of your brain and nervous system.
Muscle also protects your brain from a more practical standpoint.
It allows you to participate in the full breadth of experiences life has to offer.
Loss of muscle mass leads to loss of physical freedom, and the natural consequence is social isolation and sedentary living, which heavily contribute to cognitive decline.
According to the CDC, social isolation is associated with a ~50% increased risk of dementia. It increases a person's risk of premature death from all causes that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
Social isolation is incredibly harmful to your physical and mental health.
If we remove social isolation from the equation and just focus on sedentary living, we still find that loss of muscle mass is quite harmful.
One of the reasons is that people living that way miss out on the neurotrophic factors from muscle usage.
Another is that the brain isn’t being used to process things like movement, which is one of its primary jobs, and just like everything else in the body, if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Get strong, stay strong, stay sharp.