Aging brain: Insights and protective measures from doctors

Although you might wish it wasn’t so, your body and brain slowly break down as you age. And while infinite diets, supplements and wellness products claim to stop this decline, the truth is that aging is inevitable. (Otherwise, we’d all live forever.)

But of course, there are things you can do to keep yourself healthy for as long as possible.

When it comes to staying healthy, protecting your brain function is just as important as protecting your physical body. Luckily, healthy habits will help you do both.

We often talk about how to keep your physical body healthy as you age. But what about brain health?

To answer this question, we asked two experts to give some insight into what happens to your brain as you age and what you can do to help protect it.

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What is brain health?

According to the National Institute on Aging, there are four main areas of brain health [1]:

  1. Cognitive health refers to how well you think, learn and remember.
  2. Motor function is how well your brain can create and control your body’s movements and balance.
  3. Emotional function covers how well you interpret and respond to pleasant and unpleasant emotions.
  4. Tactile function measures how well your brain feels and responds to various touch sensations, including pressure, pain and temperature.

When people talk about brain health, they usually refer to cognitive health. But since all four areas of brain health are interconnected – they all rely on proper brain function – the things that support one place also help the others.

What happens to your cognitive health as you age?
Photograph: yanadjana/Envato

What happens to your cognitive health as you age?

Thomas Hammond, MD, a neurologist at Baptist Health’s Marcus Neuroscience Institute, explains that signs of normal cognitive aging tend to appear around the age of 45 [2].

“Normal aging will slow down retrieval of memory, and most individuals will have some difficulty remembering names of people, items or places as part of normal aging,” he says, adding that at this age, those bits of memory usually come back within hours of first trying to recall them. 

“These minor glitches in memory are not signs of evolving dementia or cognitive impairment.”

On the other hand, “cognitive decline is a decrease in one’s cognitive horsepower beyond what is expected for age,” Hammond explains. 

“Forgetting conversations one has had, or important appointments are more worrisome and concerning [signs of] significant early cognitive impairment.”

Similarly, forgetting words or facts is a sign of early aging since this kind of memory loss only happens much later in life.

How much control do you have over your cognitive health?

Like all aspects of health, a good portion of your cognitive health is out of your control.

“Genetic factors may play a role in Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s disease, frontotemporal dementia and other degenerative neurologic conditions leading to cognitive impairment,” Hammond says.

In addition, having a family history and genetic predisposition to certain heart conditions can raise your risk of cognitive decline and cognitive health conditions, Hammond explains.

High blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes mellitus and a lack of physical activity all raise your risk of stroke, negatively affecting cognitive health.

That said, lifestyle factors also significantly affect your cognitive health. “Yes, genetics plays a role,” says George Grossberg, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital [2]. 

A healthy upbringing and living environment, which are also largely out of your control, also play a crucial role.

But, he says, lifestyle factors are also important: “Living a meaningful and stimulating life without too much stress or trauma and establishing a healthy lifestyle [both] make a difference.”

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How to protect your cognitive health

Grossberg states, “A healthy lifestyle involves being active on four fronts throughout life: physical activity, mental activity, social activity and spiritual activity/mindfulness.”

Physical activity

Any physical activity is vital because it reduces your risk of the cardiovascular issues mentioned above, reducing your risk of stroke and the resulting cognitive impairment.

Hammond recommends getting at least 30 minutes five times per week, which aligns with the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans [3].

You don’t have to go all-out every time. Still, a mix of moderate activity (like walking or casual bike riding), strength training and vigorous exercise (like running or tennis) will yield the most benefits.

Mental and social activities

To keep your brain sharp, mental and social activities are just as important.

“In order to ward off cognitive problems later in life, people should attempt to keep cognitively engaged in mid-life by reading, writing, using the computer for email, and participating in social activities such as card games or book clubs,” Hammond says, adding that research suggests this kind of cognitive engagement may prevent cognitive decline as you age. 

For some people, these activities are a normal part of daily life. But for others, particularly retired older adults, it might be necessary to build these things into your routine intentionally.

Spiritual activities

Hammond explains that the relationship between stress and cognitive health is complex. Stress is a normal part of life, and short-term stress can be a good thing because it motivates us to focus and take action.

“However, evidence suggests that chronic stress can adversely affect memory and increase the risk for dementia,” Hammond says.

The spiritual activities Grossman highlights, like mindfulness and intentional relaxation, also affect cognitive health.

Relaxation techniques, avoiding bad habits such as reviewing one’s resentments, releasing grudges or things beyond your control, and working a gratitude list each day may be helpful tactics to [avoid chronic] stress,” Hammond notes.

Spiritual activities

Nutritious diet

No surprise, a nutritious diet can also go a long way in protecting your cognitive health as you age. Hammond and Grossman recommend the Mediterranean diet and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) Diet for mental health. 

But, you don’t need to eat according to strict rules to reap these diets’ health benefits. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, lean proteins and healthy fats, which you can do without sticking only to foods popular in Mediterranean countries. 

The principles of the Mediterranean diet can fit all cuisines and preferences. The DASH Diet encourages similar food choices but also recommends limiting sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams daily.

Hammond also adds that when it comes to alcohol, total avoidance is the gold standard since some evidence suggests that alcohol consumption can negatively affect brain health; however, research is conflicting.

That said, if you drink responsibly, he recommends that males and females stick to no more than one drink per day.

Do supplements help protect your brain health?

Although supposedly brain-boosting supplements are everywhere, Grossman says there are “no wonder pills or products” to support brain health.

While certain compounds, like omega-3 fatty acids, are linked to cognitive health, getting them through a healthy overall diet is far more beneficial than relying on a pill or powder.

And many cognitive health supplements on the market contain active ingredients that haven’t been proven to work and are poorly regulated.

In closing

If you’ve been incorporating healthy lifestyle habits, you’ve been protecting your cognitive health, whether you realize it or not.

After all, what’s good for your physical health is suitable for your mental health. Your brain is one of many major organs in your body—key recommendations like physical activity and proper nutrition are crucial to keeping it healthy [3].

While diet and exercise are essential, there are other lifestyle factors you have control over. That said, focusing on cognitive health can help you view health holistically.

By prioritizing social activity, mental activity and stress reduction, you can protect your brain health as you age while feeling better daily.

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[1] https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/cognitive-health-and-older-adults
[2] https://physicians.slucare.edu/details/246/george-grossberg-geriatric_psychiatry-psychiatry-st_louis
[3] https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm
[4] https://www.eatingwell.com/article/8044818/what-happens-to-your-brain-as-you-age/

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The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.