As you age, your brain ages with you. Your prefrontal cortex and hippocampus—important for memory and decision-making—actually reduce in size with age, and blood flow in the brain is reduced by narrowed arteries. In addition, many lifestyle choices we make affect brain function. But this doesn’t mean dementia is inevitable—far from it—and there are steps you can take to help keep your brain in shape as you get older.
Understanding Brain Function
“The brain is the most complex computer there is,” says Jeremy F. Gill, MD, a neurologist at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital who treats brain disorders such as dementia, epilepsy, stroke and Parkinson’s disease.
“Billions of interconnected nerve cells in the brain called neurons operate like electrical circuits, allowing us to perform complex thoughts, solve problems and remember things,” Dr. Gill explains. And when we learn, we add even more neuron branches and connections. We also prune back and reinforce connections that allow us to more easily perform tasks from muscle memory, like playing an instrument or a sport.
“When the brain establishes these patterns, it builds a kind of ‘scaffolding,’” says Dr. Gill. “As we age, we rely more on the scaffolding, and if we’ve done a lot of things in life, we have more scaffolds on which to rely.”
Diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s result from a buildup of abnormal protein that causes a loss of those critical neurons. It’s important to note, however, that over time neurons still degenerate in people who do not have such a condition.
Effects of Aging on the Brain
Deteriorating brain function arising from aging or dementia typically starts when people reach their 60s or 70s. This aging process changes the size of the brain and reduces the number of neurons, according to Fouzia Siddiqui, MD, FCPS, a neurologist at Sentara RMH Medical Center. In addition to serving as the stroke medical director for Sentara RMH, Dr. Siddiqui specializes in sleep medicine and headache medicine. “As you age, you tend to lose circuits—the brain pathways that give you good memory,” she states.
According to Dr. Gill, vascular conditions that tend to decrease blood supply, such as high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, smoking and poorly controlled diabetes, also affect the brain. “So it’s essential to maintain a healthy weight and keep your numbers in check,” he advises.
Both Dr. Gill and Dr. Siddiqui note that a great deal of damage to the brain and the rest of the body comes from our lifestyle choices. The good news, though, is that we can do a number of things to slow down the brain’s aging process.
“It’s a lifelong process,” Dr. Siddiqui says. “As adults, we realize we have to take care of our health. If you don’t do that, you’re forcing yourself into a place where your brain is more likely to deteriorate over time.”
Protecting Your Brain Health
So what can you do to keep your brain “young”? Quite a bit, actually, and it’s never too soon to start.
Dr. Gill recommends following a Mediterranean diet with a focus on fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Choose lean proteins and limit your sodium and refined sugar. “It’s basically the same diet you would use for hypertension and overall cardiac health,” he says.
Avoiding processed foods, breads and sodas—including diet drinks—can help stave off inflammation and free radicals, which in turn raise your risk for dementia and cognitive impairment, according to Dr. Siddiqui.
Get Enough Sleep
You need at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night, and you can’t make up a sleep deficit by sleeping extra hours on the weekend. “Our nation is sleep-deprived, making it difficult to function as we should, so we use caffeine to keep ourselves awake,” says Dr. Siddiqui. “Sleep deprivation stresses the body and makes one more vulnerable to diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol—all of which contribute to an aging brain. Our brains need to rest and rejuvenate during sleep so that we can form new neural networks.”
Exercise helps control weight, blood pressure and cholesterol, but it also helps maintain good blood flow to the brain, notes Dr. Gill. Try for at least 30-40 minutes of exercise three to four days per week.
And don’t think you need to join a gym or purchase fancy equipment just to exercise. An activity as simple as walking can improve your health. Dr. Siddiqui often recommends yoga in the pool, a stationary bike or even hand exercises for those who have severe limitations in movement.
Head trauma is a common cause of brain injuries, so bikers should always wear helmets, Dr. Gill advises. And people with hip, knee or spine problems need to be careful to avoid falls that may result in concussions.
Use Your Brain
Keep your brain active each day with mentally challenging activities. If you work or go to school, you’re probably already doing that, but this recommendation is especially important for people who are retired or who don’t have a structured day, Dr. Siddiqui notes. Try online brain games, word searches, crossword puzzles or Sudoku.
Find a Purpose
Social engagement and intellectual activity go hand in hand. “It’s important to get off the couch and turn off the TV,” says Dr. Gill. “Play cards, take an art class or join a walking club. Those types of social connections are very important to long-term brain health.”
He also suggests traveling, learning a new language and visiting art museums as great brain-healthy activities. All of these pastimes add to the scaffolding our brains rely on as we age.
To help reduce stress and anxiety, Dr. Siddiqui recommends yoga, meditation, the practice of mindfulness and similar activities. “Meditation may actually improve memory,” she says. “Consistently focusing on your breathing for 10-15 minutes a day can be very relaxing, as are deep breathing exercises at night to help you fall asleep.”
What Else Can You Do?
Avoid alcohol, tobacco and drugs, all of which are bad for the brain.
“Alcohol in particular has a lot of deleterious effects on the brain,” Dr. Siddiqui says.” Used in excess, alcohol can lead to dementia.”
Smoking contributes to plaque buildup and decreased blood flow in the arteries, which can lead to vascular dementia.
“You should be very careful not to compound the effects aging naturally has on the brain by introducing additional challenges,” she adds. “By making brain-healthy lifestyle choices starting today, you can help maximize your chances to keep your brain ‘young’ for longer.”