Memory loss in old age the price we pay for a large brain & a long life?

September, 2011

Chimpanzee brains don’t shrink with age as humans’ do. It may be that cognitive impairment and even dementia are our lot because we work our brains too hard for too long.

Comparison of 99 chimpanzee brains ranging from 10-51 years of age with 87 human brains ranging from 22-88 years of age has revealed that, unlike the humans, chimpanzee brains showed no sign of shrinkage with age. But the answer may be simple: we live much longer. In the wild, chimps rarely live past 45, and although human brains start shrinking as early as 25 (as soon as they reach maturity, basically!), it doesn’t become significant until around 50.

The answer suggests one reason why humans are uniquely vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease — it’s all down to our combination of large brain and long life. There are other animals that experience some cognitive impairment and brain atrophy as they age, but nothing as extreme as that found in humans (a 10-15% decline in volume over the life-span). (Elephants and whales have the same two attributes as humans — large brains and long lives — but we lack information on how their brains change with age.)

The problem may lie in the fact that our brains use so much more energy than chimps’ (being more than three times larger than theirs) and thus produce a great deal more damaging oxidation. Over a longer life-span, this accumulates until it significantly damages the brain.

If that’s true, it reinforces the value of a diet high in antioxidants.

Reference: 

[2500] Sherwood CC, Gordon AD, Allen JS, Phillips KA, Erwin JM, Hof PR, Hopkins WD. Aging of the cerebral cortex differs between humans and chimpanzees. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [Internet]. 2011 ;108(32):13029 - 13034. Available from: http://www.pnas.org/content/108/32/13029.abstract

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