As we get older changes occur in the brain that affect your memory. One of the most common changes presents as forgetfulness. Mild forgetfulness, such as losing things, forgetting which day it is and remembering later, sometimes forgetting which word to use are normal signs of an aging brain.
Before getting into this topic, you may wish to read our blog What happens to your neurons as you age.
What are plaques and tangles?
Plaques and tangles are created from two different types of protein, found in your brain.
Plaques form when specific proteins in the neuron are processed differently. Short beta amyloid fragments, known as beta-amyloid proteins are released from the neuron. As these fragments start to clump together, they become toxic and eventually create amyloid plaques. These plaques build up between neurons, creating structural changes that make it difficult for neurons to effectively communicate to each other. The information becomes scrambled and harder for the brain to interpret.
- Neurofibrillary tangles - Tau proteins support the integrity of neurons to help guide nutrients and chemical messages efficiently through the end of the neuron – the axon – to the next neuron. This role allows the brain to receive the nourishment it needs to stay healthy and for information to be communicated effectively to different parts of the brain.
Neurofibrillary tangles occur when tau proteins break from the structure of neurons, causing the neurons to collapse. As the tau protein breaks away it attaches to other tau proteins, forming tangles¹.
How do plaques and tangles effect memory?
The two key ways that plaques and tangles impact memory are through interfering with communication within different areas of the brain and through encouraging an unhealthy brain, through interfering with nutrient supply.
The hippocampus is the area of the brain responsible for regulating various functions and reactions, including learning and memory. Through the aging process, the hippocampus reduces in size and its functions become dysregulated – some processes become hyperactive, whilst others are not deactivated effectively.
Amyloid plaques occurring in this area contributes to the dysregulation of hippocampus function. Beta amyloid fragments can both cause hyperactivity in surrounding neurons, leading to chaotic communication of information. The resulting amyloid plaques make it difficult for neurons to effectively communicate information within the area.
Tau proteins and neurofibrillary tangles are thought to contribute to the degeneration of the central memory network.
Together these changes contribute to the signs of cognitive decline, such as being unable to differentiate a new encounter from a previous encounter, confusion and poor memory performance.
Memory loss is associated with the normal aging process but may also indicate the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Plaques and tangles accumulate as normal part of the aging process and contribute to impaired memory. Although the presence of plaques and tangles, on their own, do not indicate Alzheimer’s Disease, research has found that high levels of plaques and tangles can increase the severity of symptoms experienced by people with this condition².
Is there anything I can do to reduce the build up of plaques and tangles?
Plaques and tangles are a normal part of the aging process. They play a significant role in the memory symptoms experienced due to old age and in neurodegenerative conditions.
Healthy dietary and lifestyle behaviors have been shown to reduce the build-up of plaques and tangles and in turn reduce the cognitive decline experienced through aging and neurodegenerative conditions. These changes have the best effect if adopted earlier rather than later.
- Exercise your brain – cognitive function is improved through keeping your brain active. Whether it is reading, playing card or board games, or solving puzzles, your brain will thank you for it in the long term. If this is not part of your regime, maybe start with the daily wordle puzzle.
- Exercise your body – exercise is thought to help brain health through improving circulation, memory, behavior, and cognition functions. Exercise reduces stress and excess weight, which are shown to reduce cognitive function.
- Stress management – managing your stress levels can reduce the progression of cognitive decline. Stress and depression can increase your risk for developing neurodegenerative conditions.
- Nutrition – a wholefoods diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocados, oily fish can help support cognitive health. Maintaining a healthy weight, exercise and a Mediterranean diet have been linked to reduced plaques and tangles in brain scans³.
- Supplements – there are a number of choices when it comes to herbs and supplements to improve brain health. A good quality fish oil, rich in EPA and DHA, has been shown to reduce the decline in brain health associated with aging. A B vitamin complex supports the nervous system including brain health. There are many herbs and natural ingredients that can support cognition and brain health – these include Ginkgo biloba (Ginkgo), Bacopa monnieri (Bacopa), Curcuma longa (Turmeric), Oolong tea, Uncaria tomentosa (Cats Claw) and Alpha GPC.
BBA (Hons)., BNat., mNMHNZ
Registered Naturopath & Medical Herbalist
¹ How Alzheimer's disease changes the brain. (n.d.). Alzheimer Society of Canada. https://alzheimer.ca/en/about-dementia/what-alzheimers-disease/how-alzheimers-disease-changes-brain
² Reas, E. T. (2017). Amyloid and tau pathology in normal cognitive aging. The Journal of Neuroscience, 37(32), 7561-7563. doi: 10.1523/jneurosci.1388-17.2017
³ Ko, Y., & Chye, S. M. (2020). Lifestyle intervention to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Reviews in the Neurosciences, 31(8), 817-824. doi: 10.1515/revneuro-2020-0072