Perception & Age: The Nuts & Bolts (Greasing the Gears)

The following is not intended to be medical advice. It is for informational purposes only, and general consideration. This is the third of a three-part series I have posted in relation to elder care.

As people age, dopamine levels naturally decline. This is a fact of life.

In a nation with aging Baby Boomers, political campaigners often frame voting decisions negatively knowing negative messaging helps to persuade older people. This is very different from how they target younger voters, which has more optimistic messages and focuses on benefits and rewards. As it turns out, the elderly and aged adults are more swayed by negative than positive messaging in study after study. The reasons are more fundamental in nature than you might think.

Dopamine plays a critical role in our perceptions of reward and pleasure. Why is it that aging adults increasingly have less of it? This is partly due to the increased activity of monoamine oxidase B (MAO-B) as people get older. MAO-B degrades dopamine. This promotes falling dopamine levels. Every decade past the age of 45 dopamine levels decline by 13% on average. This decline is directly proportional with the increase in MAO-B.

Most drugs that have been developed in relation to neurotransmitters are for serotonin. Modern medicine continues to struggle with how to respond with effective treatments to a range of conditions and disorders promoted by dopamine dysregulation and decline. Some of these have focused on inhibiting the MAO-B enzyme. Others focus on nutrition, noting that a specific form of vitamin B12 helps protect neurons and prevent a decline in dopamine levels.

Dopamine is important to helping regulate mood, but it does much more than that. It’s critical to our cognitive health, and cognitive decline is known to accompany dopamine decline. It supports memory, retention and more. Dopamine not only maintains our motivation and feelings of pleasure but reduces risk for neurodegenerative illnesses. It isn’t just a neurotransmitter; it is known as the “feel-good hormone”. Low dopamine levels are associated with depression, aka “unhappiness”, dissatisfaction, etcetera. Dopamine is fundamental for movement, body coordination, learning and cognition. Sustaining and maintaining dopamine levels is so fundamental to the body it is associated with prolonged lifespans due to all the critical roles it plays in the body.

It is now known that MAO-B activity is higher in dementia patients than in non-impaired individuals the same age. Some feel this is an indication it has a strong role in neurodegeneration. Why? Increased MAO-B activity results in potentially damaging by-products that form and are known to contribute to diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease.

This is why it has become common for doctors to prescribe MAO-B inhibitors like Deprenyl (aka selegiline). People with dopamine deficiency related health issues need to retain more dopamine and stop its degradation promoted by increased MAO-B activity with aging. Once the symptoms surface suggesting the effects of dopamine decline, early treatment, or treatment as soon as possible (as identification and diagnosis allows), is better.

The drug Deprenyl is similar to discoveries made of some plants that naturally inhibit MAO-B enzymes. Phellodendron tree bark as one of the most potent plant-derived MAO-B inhibitors. This is NOT the same as the houseplant Philodendron. The Phellodendron tree is also known as the Amur cork tree. It has been safely used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries to treat various ailments. Lab experiments using extracts of Phellodendron bark selectively inhibited over 80% of MAO-B activity, which is comparable to the drug Deprenyl. Phellodendron also protects against neuroinflammation, beta-amyloid production, and other changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease, while helping to maintain cognitive function. It has demonstrated anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, and antitumor properties.

Elevated MAO-B has known neurotoxic effects.

Those who take MAO-B-inhibiting drugs such as Deprenyl do not need to take Phellodendron. Neither is Phellodendron is not a substitute for physician-prescribed medications. However, plants like it were the inspiration for the modern medicines we have in this category of drugs that have proved useful.

A form of B12, adenosyl-cobalamin, has also been shown to prevent a decline in dopamine levels and protect neurons. Research for this was funded by the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

None of this is to suggest that dopamine decline necessarily equates to poorer decision making. There is little difference between older and younger demographics in studies involving this question. However, the concern is quality of life for those aging and in their elder years, reducing pain and discomfort and extending good health in ways that must incorporate dopamine as a consideration in general health and maintenance, even as other aspects of health are.

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