As dogs age they face many of the same challenges that we as humans face including cognitive decline. Like in humans, a dog's brain literally shrinks the older the dog becomes. The good news is that through research we have learned that there are ways that we can slow the aging process.
With the recent ability to take MRI scans of a dog's brain we have come to realize how similar they are to our own brains and therefore dogs face many of the same changes as they age. Cortical atrophy (brain shrinkage) and ventricular widening occur, but it is also believed that the brain is particularly susceptible to damage caused by free radicals produced by the body's own metabolism.
According to a 1997 study, "Aging and the production of free radicals can lead to oxidative damage to proteins, lipids and nucleotides that, in turn, may cause neuronal dysfunction and ultimately neuronal death. Normally, several mechanisms are in place that balances the production of free radicals. However with age, it is possible that these protective mechanisms begin to fail."
Increasing the intake of antioxidants such as Vitamin E and C can play a big part in protecting the brain and nervous system from free-radicals, but there are also ways that exercise can help slow the impacts of aging.
Exercise that can benefit our senior dog's brains comes in 2 forms 1) physical and 2) mental.
Physical exercise has been proven to not only help keep a dog's body healthy, but it can actually help to grow brain cells. Research across a variety of species have shown that skeletal muscle cells secrete proteins and other factors into the blood during exercise that have a regenerative effect on the brain.
Keeping your dog active also has the benefit of stimulating the mind and science has proven that exposing your dog to new experiences, scents, sights and sounds can alter the physiology of their brains.
According to Stanley Coren, PhD., DSc., FRSC, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia,. "The brains of animals that have lived in changing and complex environments actually become larger. New connections develop between existing neurons in the cortex as a result of experience. Recent evidence demonstrates that it is even possible to grow new neural cells in important areas of the brain that are associated with learning, memory and the organization of behavior."
Notice he says 'changing and complex environments' which means we need to get them outside of our own backyards so they can be exposed to different sights, smells and sounds making our walks, in new places, a necessary component of their exercise routines. And if you need a little help getting out of your immediate area you can take advantage of travel products such as the Dogger stroller. I use my Dogger with my own seniors so we can go on long walks because it allows my dogs to get the exercise and stimulation they need, but it also gives them a chance to take a break so they don't overdo it. Without the Dogger I would only be able to go on short walks and we would not be able to be as active as we like to be.
Exercise has been shown to affect human brains in the same way. "Studies of senior citizens who walk regularly showed significant improvement in memory skills compared to sedentary elderly people. Walking also improved their learning ability, concentration, and abstract reasoning in people who walked as little as 20 minutes a day. Furthermore, research from the Salk Institute demonstrates that physical exercise has a protective effect on the brain and its mental processes, and may even help prevent Alzheimer's disease." describes Coren.
Given that the brains of humans and dogs are so similar and that researchers are looking to dogs in hopes of better understanding how to treat or prevent dementia in people, the parallels are undeniable.
Another interesting activity that can have a direct and positive impact on our dog's brain health comes in the form of problem solving activities. These 'puzzles' are another way to actively exercise your dog's brain keeping it sharp and protecting it against further decline. The same has been said for people.
Fun and effective brain games can include: hide and seek either of their favorite treat, toy or even you; the classic shell game where you hide a treat under a cup then once your dog figures out how to knock over the cup to get the treat you can introduce additional cups as decoys to increase the difficulty level; and there are a long list of puzzle games sold on the market today that use similar concepts of hiding treats and creating different obstacles your dog must overcome to get the reward. If your dog is ball crazy then you can do a lot of these puzzle games with the ball as the reward. Food or toys both work well so just pick the reward your senior loves most and find creative ways to make them problem solve their way to enjoyment. Again changing things up is important to ensure the brain is getting the exercise it needs.
I find it empowering to know that there are ways that we as parents can help our senior dogs stay young and in the process it will help us as well. We need the exercise and the changing environments just as much as our dogs, so by pursuing an active lifestyle that exercises our dog's bodies and brains, we are reaping the same rewards.
Ann-Marie Fleming is the Founder & CEO of Dog Quality, a provider of products focused on improving the quality of life for older dogs.