Every September is Healthy Aging Month, and there is no better time than the present to start living a healthier life for your brain. Whether you are 80 or 18, it’s never too late or too early to follow some basic principles.
The Dana Foundation’s Successful Aging & Your Brain booklet discusses what older adults can do to keep their brains sharp as they age. Although it is true that cognitive decline, dementia, and other brain diseases and disorders become more common with age, it is also true that our brain improves in many ways as we grow older. With time, we accumulate more knowledge and apply past lessons in judging present challenges and opportunities—in other words, we become wiser. Our brains also maintain their ability to change in response to experiences, known as plasticity, well into old age.
Exercise is an integral part of a brain-healthy lifestyle and can enhance memory and learning, improve mood, and increase blood and oxygen flow to the brain. It may also amplify the rate at which neurons are generated in the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in emotion and memory. Endurance exercises (such as running and dancing), strength exercises (involving weights), and flexibility and balance exercises (such as yoga) are all part of a well-rounded exercise regimen. Mental exercise such as learning a new skill (e.g., playing a new instrument or learning a new language) also helps keep our brains sharp as we age.
A healthy brain needs a healthy heart. Reducing cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes can also decrease the risk of cognitive decline. Brain damage caused by impaired circulation (both gradual and acute) contributes to up top two-thirds of dementia. To have a healthy cardiovascular system, eating healthy is essential. Some ways to eat a healthy diet are: replace saturated fat (such as that in animal products) with unsaturated fat (such as olive or sunflower oil); eat foods containing omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon; reduce sodium intake; and eat less sweets and white bread and more fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain products.
Social connection is also very important to brain health. Evidence suggests people who engage in more social activities are less likely to develop dementia and cognitive decline. There are many ways to remain socially active, including getting involved in spiritual and community activities, seeking out people with common interests, volunteering, taking an education course, or even owning a pet.
Managing stress is also vital to promoting brain health and stress reduction is among the many benefits of exercise and positive social interactions. Stress has been linked to anxiety and depression and some research suggests it can impair memory and makes the hippocampus—a key structure involved in memory formation—vulnerable to injury. Stress also undermines immune protection against infection and increases inflammation.
Finally, adequate sleep is necessary to consolidate memories and maintain proper brain functioning. For older people in particular, impaired sleep can increase stress and raise the risk of depression. Some ways to maintain good sleep hygiene are: don’t eat heavy meals later in the day; don’t use electronics such as tablets or cellphones in bed; set regular bedtime and waking hours; and avoid caffeine before bedtime.
Our Successful Aging & Your Brain bookmark summarizes how to help your brain age with four essential factors or steps to keep our brains healthy as we age:
- Stay physically active and exercise regularly.
- Reduce vascular risk factors (like high blood pressure and cholesterol) with good diet, healthy lifestyle, and medication when necessary.
- Talk to your doctor about diseases and drugs that may impair brain function.
- Keep your brain lively with social and intellectual activity, and adequate sleep.
– Amanda Bastone