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After 40 It's All Down Hill I don't know about you Dave, but physically, I'm just not as fast as I used to be.

I know I'm not because my teenage son now routinely beats me in basketball and tennis.

I hate to tell you this, but it's not just your legs that peaked years ago, your brain did too! That's because how well you play depends on how fast your neurons are firing, telling your muscles what to do.

Yes… except neurons deteriorate as we age. For a neuron to be firing at a healthy speed — its axon needs to be in good shape. The axon is the long tail like extension off the cell and it's how electrical signals are sent to other neurons or muscles. Axons function normally as long as an insulating layer surrounding it is intact.

With age, that insulation called myelin starts to deteriorate. After age 40, even healthy people begin to lose some myelin in a part of the brain responsible for motor control.

Without it, neuronal signals move along the axon as a wave, but with myelin, the signals can skip along the axon generating a much faster and stronger signal.

Scientists tested how often men of varying ages could tap their index finger in 10 seconds and then used MRIs to measure the amount of demyelination they had. Both tapping speed and myelination peaked at age 39 and declined slowly with age thereafter.

Interestingly, other areas of the brain, such as those responsible for cognitive functions like high level thinking also demyelinate but not for another decade.

We can help to slow this process by staying mentally and physically active!

Neuronal pathways that are used will actually send out signals to repair damaged myelin. So get up — and think while you're at it!

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For more information…

The redOrbit Knowledge Network is an online community specifically for those with an interest in science, space, health and technology. The published a website describing the study of demyelination associated with age.
For more information…

The same study is described with additional detail and background at e!Science News
For more information…

For information about nerve cells, their basic structure and function as well as what myelin is and how it forms go here. This website provide illustrations, animations and actual images of nerve cells.


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