Brain health is an essential part of overall health and wellbeing, as it plays a vital role in our ability to live long, healthy, and full lives. Our brains are responsible for just about every aspect of our existence. They are fundamental to our ability to think, learn, communicate, problem-solve, make decisions, respond to our environments, balance, move, and so much more. Each physical and mental activity we perform is initiated and carried out by our brains.
While some changes to brain health are likely to occur as you age, it is important to understand what are considered “normal” changes to brain health and what may be signs for concern. Regularly assessing and monitoring brain health as you age is crucial to detecting cognitive impairment early before irreversible damage is done to the brain.
Below, we explain everything you need to know about brain health as you age, including what are considered normal and abnormal changes, how to keep your brain healthy, and how to monitor your brain health.
Understanding Brain Health As You Age
As you get older, changes occur in all parts of the body, including the brain. As you age, some changes to brain health are normal. Aging may cause minor changes to cognitive abilities, such as memory, planning, organizing, and decision-making. For example, as you get older, you may:
- Takes slightly longer than before to learn new things.
- Forget to pay a bill every once in a while.
- Experience minor decreases in your ability to pay attention.
- Be slower to find the right word to use.
- Have mild difficulty with multitasking.
However, changes that interfere with your ability to complete everyday activities, or Activities of Daily Living (ADLs), like finding your way home, driving, using your phone, shopping for groceries, or preparing a meal, are not normal. Cognitive impairment is not a normal part of aging and may be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease or other causes of dementia. Examples of abnormal changes in brain health include:
- Repeatedly asking the same questions.
- Struggling to follow a list of instructions.
- Becoming lost in familiar places or areas.
- Difficulty understanding time or place.
- Misplacing or losing things often.
Seven Steps Toward Better Brain Health
Advancements in neuroscience and neurological disease research have provided us with information that may enable us to maintain or even improve brain health. In general, what is good for your heart is good for your brain, as cardiovascular conditions and risk factors are also risk factors for dementia. Here are seven steps you can take to take charge of your brain health:
- Stop smoking: Tobacco use can cause harm to many of your organs, including your brain. Additionally, smoking increases your risk for heart disease—a well-known risk factor for dementia.
- Control alcohol consumption: In addition to liver damage, excessive alcohol consumption can lead to several heart conditions, such as high blood pressure, while increasing the risk of stroke and heart attack, and consequently, the risk of developing dementia. Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption is no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one drink per day for women.
- Eat a healthy diet: Heart-healthy diets, such as Mediterranean diets, the DASH diet, and the MIND diet, can protect your heart and reduce the risk of developing dementia. These diets typically include an increased intake of fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats such as olive oil, as well as a reduced intake of sugar, processed carbohydrates, and saturated fats.
- Exercise daily for 30 to 60 minutes: Regular physical activity helps maintain a healthy weight and reduces the risk of cardiovascular conditions, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
- Stimulate your mind: Mental and social engagement may promote and support brain health. Consider learning a new skill, doing puzzles, participating in a book club, crafting, cooking, gardening, or any other mental and social activities that stimulate your brain or keep you engaged with friends and family.
- Get adequate sleep: Over the past several years, increasing amounts of research have indicated a strong connection between sleep and neurodegenerative diseases. For adults aged 18 to 60, the CDC recommends seven or more hours of sleep per night. For adults aged 61 to 64, seven to nine hours are recommended, and for adults aged 65 and older, seven to eight hours are recommended.
- Minimize stress: Research suggests that chronic stress may be a risk factor for the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Find ways to manage and cope with stress, such as exercising, meditating, or reading a book.
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