The brain is not only the organ of the mind and body, but the centre of our nervous system, which we know plays a huge part in our health and wellness. As we get older, our brains start to shrink, blood flow slows, and our brain’s neurons (nerve cells) can shrink or lose connections with other neurons. Our cognitive capacities can decline much earlier in adulthood than we think. As we age, our risk of having neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s increases, which is why we need to care for it as much as we can.
We’re rounding out Brain and Injury Awareness month in Canada with 8 tips on how to keep your brain sharp as you age so you can prevent illness, increase your mental and physical performance, and enhance your potential to live longer.
Believe in yourself
Believing that you have a good memory as you age can contribute to that being true! Those who believe that they are not in control of their memory function are less likely to improve their memory skills and more likely to experience cognitive decline. Believing you can improve and translating that belief into practice gives you a better chance of keeping your brain sharp.
Having purpose can be good for the brain, especially if it involves learning, challenging yourself, and interaction with people of different generations. Research suggests that people with a sense of purpose have reduced risk of the effects of dementia, even if their brain contains Alzheimer’s plaques—likely because having purpose inspires them to take better care of themselves.
Heart disease and stroke could contribute to developing certain types of dementia. Eating a nutrient-rich diet helps us maintain a regular weight, cardiovascular health, healthy blood sugar, and keep cholesterol and blood pressure low.
Drink water regularly, limit your intake of refined sugar and saturated fat and get your intake of B vitamins, vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids. Green leaves, vegetables, berries, and seafood (which contain omega-3s) are thought to be neuroprotective, but don’t pay attention to superfood claims. Foods like kale and fish oil, while good for you, are not proven to stop cognitive decline. Reduce your food portions and plan to have healthy snacks ready. Intermittent fasting may also be helpful.
Studies have also found the Mediterranean diet—which emphasizes vegetables, beans, healthy fats like olive oil, and fish—and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet protect against dementia. DASH focuses on fruits and vegetables, fat-free or low-fat dairy, whole grains, lean meats, limited red meat, and reduced processed foods.
Studies have shown that consistent exercise—even walking for two minutes every day—helps to lower our risk for dementia. Though weightlifting can build muscle, aerobic exercise helps us reduce inflammation, maintain blood flow to the brain and stimulate factors that promote the function and growth of neurons. Like clean eating, physical activity reduces our risk of high blood pressure associated with developing dementia.
Get good sleep
Sleep clears the brain of debris that might build up and create problems. Neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta says sleep hygiene principles and regular rest are key. Instead of taking daytime naps, go for walks in nature, meditate, have a gratitude practice, take breaks from email and social media, and avoid multitasking.
Keep learning and aspiring
Although they can help improve memory, brain games like crosswords or number puzzles are not effective at warding off dementia because they don’t train problem solving or reasoning, which some researchers believe helps us build a “cognitive reserve.” A cognitive reserve is the brain’s ability to use connections between neurons to carry out cognitive tasks despite damaging brain changes. Reading, taking up a new hobby or learning new skills such as a new musical instrument or languages later in life, including adopting new technology, has the potential to reduce or delay cognitive changes associated with aging.
Repetition helps! When you want to remember something you've just heard or read, repeat it out loud or write it down to reinforce the connection and your memory. It's best not to repeat something many times in a short period. Revisit the information after increasingly longer periods of time, like once an hour, every few hours, then every day. Spacing out the learning of new information improves memory and is valuable when trying to master more complicated information.
Using tools that help you remember actions and continue learning can be helpful, like address books, calendars, file folders, lists, maps, and smartphone reminders. Have designated places for items like glasses, keys, phones, and purses you use often in the home.
Explore new places and things
The more senses you use in learning, the more your brain will retain the memory. In one study, adults were shown a series of neutral images, each presented along with a smell. They were not asked to remember the images. When they were shown a set of images without odors and asked which they'd seen before, they recalled all odor-paired pictures, especially those with a pleasant smell. Brain imaging indicated that the odor-processing region of the brain became active when people saw objects originally paired with odors, even without the smells.
Having friends is good for us! A 2018 study published in Scientific Reports that studied older adults in China found that participants with consistently high or increased social engagement had a lower risk of dementia than those with consistently low social engagement.
Taking classes or going for walks with others, volunteering, and mentoring are also great ways to not only meet people, but learn from them. While less than ideal, meeting virtually may be helpful if you live in a remote place without much social support. Learning how to use social media could even improve your memory!
Stop smoking and drink alcohol moderately
Cigarette smoking and excessively drinking alcohol puts you at increased risk for dementia, so moderate these habits if you haven’t stopped altogether.
These 8 tips can be useful even if you’ve begun to experience cognitive decline. Here’s to your brain health as you age!