For Beating Dementia, It’s Nature Over Nurture — Or Is It?

We all get old, but only some of us lose our memories along the way. Among the elderly, some have an incredibly strong grip on the past, while others struggle with forgetfulness or even severe memory-related diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Why the discrepancy? What separates those with strong memories from the more-forgetful pack? Scientists have long struggled to understand that, and two competing theories have emerged, as outlined in this excellent overview from Medical Xpress:

  • Preservation Hypothesis — The theory that elderly people can retain a sharp memory by exercising their cognitive functions on a regular basis (we might call it the “nurture over nature” argument)
  • Neural Compensation — This theory’s a little more complicated, the kind of thing you’d usually read about in medical journals as opposed to blog articles. But to state things simply, the theory is based on the fact that some people naturally have more beta-amyloid (harmful proteins that destroy memory) in their brains than others. But even among those with high beta-amyloid levels, some are able to maintain sharp cognitive abilities. Why? This theory says that some people’s brains find a way to work around those deposits. That workaround is termed “neural compensation.” (We might call this one “nature over nurture.”)

In a new study from the neuroscientists at Trinity College Dublin, elderly people were given new learning assignments. Researchers studied their brains as they learned, and they saw sharp differences in activity corresponding with beta-amyloid deposits and neural work-arounds. In other words, the research supports the neural compensation theory.

But it may not be that simple! Another study, this one out of UC-Berkeley, found that there are definite neural differences corresponding with beta-amyloid, but it also observed that seniors with high beta-amyloid levels are more likely to achieve that mental work-around (i.e. “neural compensation”) if they regularly engage in cognitive exercise.

As it turns out, then, nurture and nature might be equally important in keeping memory alive and well.

Of course, this is all very complicated, and there’s still a lot of research to be done. We’ve simplified the science a little for purposes of this article (click the links above for more detailed explanations), but we wanted to give you a basic understanding of some exciting research in the dementia field.

The fact is that the future is uncertain for all of us. Memory loss remains a significant threat and a real challenge for aging Americans. Financial costs are a big part of that problem. Fortunately, there are ways to combat the high costs of dementia treatment and elder care.

If your family is worried about how to pay to pave the road ahead of you, Medina Law Group can help. Call us now to talk with an experienced Pennington elder law attorney today.