Scientists used to believe that mental performance peaked in the early 20s and slowly declined after middle age. We now know that the amazing human mind dynamically changes and develops across the entire lifespan, and that there is not a specific age where cognitive aging is expected. Yet you may be wondering what constitutes normal brain aging and how one can avoid age-related neurodegenerative diseases? Understanding the basics of the aging brain can help us better prevent cognitive decline.
What does “healthy brain aging” look like?
It comes as no surprise that the physical structure of our human brains age from birth throughout the lifetime. Brain changes, without dementia, are a part of normal aging. With the aging process comes an expected shrinkage in brain volume. One such region is the hippocampus. With time, the protective myelin sheath surrounding this portion of the brain wears down and communication between neurons slows. As a result, structural brain changes can affect your ability to store new information and retrieve the previously stored information. With this aging, is not uncommon to see a reduction in specific cognitive abilities, such as processing speed, executive functions, and long-term memory. [i]
But while some cognitive functions weaken with age, others actually improve. [ii] As the brain ages, special nerve cells called dendrites continue to branch, strengthening connections between distant areas of the brain. This can enable the brain to better detect relationships between diverse sources of information, capture the big picture, and understand the global implications of specific issues. [ii] Wisdom, not surprisingly, is a product of the aging mind.
Unfortunately, age is also the greatest risk factor for cognitive diseases. Alzheimer's, dementia, and other brain diseases disrupt the structure of the delicate human brain. Some diseases like heart disease and diabetes also can impair cognitive function, as can certain medications, sleep deprivation, and even depression.
Should I be concerned about memory slips?
Because of these brain changes, you may start to notice slight slips in your memory at middle age or older. If you find yourself forgetting why you walked into the room or having difficulty retrieving a word or name, you may begin wondering if this is part of normal brain aging or if abnormal cognitive decline is setting in. These occasional brain freezes are not uncommon or necessarily abnormal, and if they prompt you to engage in brain-healthy behaviors or to seek a precautionary screening with your doctor, they can even be seen as a positive.
However, before you find yourself with frequent brain freezes or a loved one approaches you about a cognitive decline concern, it would be wise to make brain-enhancing practices a priority.
Science does not currently have a solution to prevent or cure dementia, but researchers have determined that non-pharmacological interventions like lifestyle modification are the only realistic approach to protect from cognitive decline. The good news is that these interventions are also are part of optimizing your brain (at any age), preventing mental health disorders, and part of keeping up your physical wellbeing.
Do you want to avoid memory lapses that come with age that may even help reduce your risk of dementia?
Here are 5 simple ways to slow brain aging and keep your brain sharp:
1. Keep your mind active
Participating in intellectually stimulating activities has been found to reduce risk of developing Alzheimer's and prevent cognitive decline. Intellectually engaging activities may help protect the brain by establishing “cognitive reserve.” Such activities “may help the brain become more adaptable in some mental functions so it can compensate for age-related brain changes and health conditions that affect the brain.” [iii] In fact, one study looked at the mental impact of active mental engagement (reading, writing, crossword puzzles, playing board or card games, engaging in group discussions, and playing music) among people in their 70s and 80s. Those who more regularly engaged in these activities were half as likely to develop mild cognitive impairment. [iv] Research clearly shows that cognitive activity strengths the functioning and plasticity of the neural circuits of the brain. [v]
Some activities that can keep your mind active include:
- Reading non-fiction
- Taking or teaching a class
- Playing games (board games, word searches, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, Sudoku, etc.)
- Learning a new skill, hobby, or language
- Playing an instrument
- Writing (creative writing, articles, book reviews, etc.)
- Building a larger vocabulary
- Memorizing poetry or Scriptures
- Tackling an intellectually challenging job
- Volunteering to help others
2. Decrease or eliminate TV
Watching TV is considered a leisure-time activity with minimal brain input necessary. And while it’s tempting to kick your feet back after a long day at the office, this lay-activity comes with considerable risk. In fact, there is a 1.3% increased risk of Alzheimer's disease for every hour spent watching television! [vi] Watching TV reduces your ability to participate in intellectually stimulating activities. Curious how to break the addictive cycle? Check out this article from Nedley Health.
3. Prioritize aerobic exercise
Regular exercise, especially aerobic exercise, supports the integrity of brain structure and preserves brain mass. [v] Unfortunately, many people begin reducing exercise with aging. It is not too late to begin some form of regular physical activity to reap the protective benefits. Aerobic exercise protects the brain and promotes neuroplasticity by reducing vascular disease risk, improving blood flow to the brain, increasing oxygenation, stimulating brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and decreasing oxidate stress and inflammatory responses. [v] Scientists have gone as far as to say that engagement in cognitive activities enhances adherence to physical activity, thus exercising the mind and the body go hand in hand to combating cognitive decline. [v]
4. Reduce stress
The relationship between stress and increased risk of cognitive impairment and dementia, especially Alzheimer's disease, is well-documented in recent medical literature. [vii] While major stressful events in adulthood may be unavoidable, we can control our coping skills. Learn how to practically reduce stress in this article and in the Nedley Depression and Anxiety Recovery Program Online.
5. Eat a diet abundant in brain-enhancing nutrients
Omega-3: These fatty acids have been found to protect against cognitive decline. In fact, researchers believe that increasing omega-3 consumption “could ultimately reduce the burden of age-related cognitive decline in the US.”[vii] It is safe and advisable to eat foods rich in omega-3, like ground hempseed, flaxseed, and chia seed. Nedley Health has carefully prepared Plant-Based Omega 3 for your convenience and best absorption of omega-3 fatty acids.
Antioxidants: These special compounds help fight free radical damage in the brain and may enhance cognitive function while reducing risk of neurogenerative diseases. In addition to antioxidant-rich berries, citrus, greens, and garlic, vitamin E, vitamin C, vitamin A, and N-acetyl-cysteine can be taken supplementarily.
It’s not too late to prevent cognitive decline
The earlier you start boosting your brain, the greater chance you give your mind of healthy aging later in life. While cognitive decline is one of the things farthest from their minds in young adults in their 20s and 30s, these are the key years to combat future decline by engaging in healthy lifestyle practices and choosing a mentally stimulating career.
No matter where your mind falls in the lifespan, it is not too late to engage in these brain-enhancing activities. Begin establishing brain-healthy habits now to significantly enhance your future brain health and minimize your risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s. Prioritizing brain health as an important lifelong pursuit will empower you to create the best future for yourself and your loved ones.
[i] Fjell, A, & Walhovd, K. (2010). Structural brain changes in aging: courses, causes and cognitive consequences. Reviews in the neurosciences, 21(3), 187–221.
[ii] How memory and thinking ability change with age. (2017). Harvard Health.
[iii] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Cognitive health and older adults. National Institute on Aging.
[iv] Protecting against cognitive decline. (2021). Harvard Health.
[v] Cheng S. T. (2016). Cognitive Reserve and the Prevention of Dementia: the Role of Physical and Cognitive Activities. Current psychiatry reports, 18(9), 85.
[vi] Lindstrom, H., et al. (2005). The relationships between television viewing in midlife and the development of Alzheimer's disease in a case-control study. Brain and cognition, 58(2), 157–165.
[vii] Franks, K., et al. (2021). Association of Stress with Risk of Dementia and Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Journal of Alzheimer's disease: JAD, 82(4), 1573–1590.
[viii] Robinson, J. G., et al. (2010). Omega-3 fatty acids and cognitive function in women. Women's health (London, England), 6(1), 119–134.