Aging happens, and with it often comes some changes to learning, memory and overall cognitive health. But just like with your physical health, you can give the mind a workout to help mitigate the effects of aging on your brain.
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"Although aging is a part of life, significant losses in cognitive abilities, such as what occurs with dementia, do not have to be," says Alicia Walf, PhD, a neuroscientist and a senior lecturer in the Department of Cognitive Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
To keep the brain sharp as we age and even reduce age-related decline in function, we need to increase what's called brain plasticity. "Brain plasticity is a kind of a catch-all term to describe new brain cells being born, even in adulthood, and incorporating themselves into functional circuits in the brain, increasing function and health and connections of existing brain cells," Walf explains.
"The more connections in the network of the brain, the more intelligent and powerful it is," adds Arif Dalvi, MD, a neurologist at the Palm Beach Neuroscience Institute and director of the Memory Disorders Center at St. Mary's Medical Center. More brain connections, he says, means more resistance to the diseases of aging, such as Alzheimer's disease.
Here are seven techniques to bolster brain connections and exercise your mind to help keep it working at its maximum ability as you age.
1. Move Your Body
"Exercise is the key to both physical and mental health as the body ages," Dr. Dalvi says. Staying active improves blood flow to the brain — just like it does to other areas of the body — which supports healthy brain cells.
As we get older, he explains, an area of the brain called the hippocampus often shrinks. "Aerobic exercise has been shown to be associated with larger hippocampal size, as well as improving scores on memory testing."
A February 2018 meta-analysis of 14 studies in Neuroimage found the strongest link between exercise and retention of the size of the left side of a person's hippocampus, where verbal memories are coded.
Work with your doctor or a physical therapist to determine the exact amount and type of exercise that's best for you, Walf says. Generally, low-impact strength training and cardio (like walking) are safe places to start.
2. Keep Learning New Things
"The capacity for learning continues throughout life," Walf says. "Exercising the brain by learning new skills and knowledge helps to promote brain plasticity and cognitive function."
In fact, a small July 2020 study in the Journals of Gerontology found that older adults ages 58 to 86 who learned multiple new skills for three months scored higher on cognitive assessments just a month and a half into the trial as they did beforehand.
Study participants learned creative new hobbies like drawing, dancing and a new language. Walf recommends other creative new hobbies, like photography or painting.
3. Eat for Brain Health
"We know that a healthy diet, good sleep and exercise are key to a healthy body, but this body also includes the brain," Walf says. "Diet has a profound effect on how sharp our minds are, especially as we grow older," she adds.
Many of the same nutritious foods you'd prioritize for physical health support a healthy brain, too, like leafy veggies, nuts, berries and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
When it comes to foods to limit, considering cutting back on foods and drinks that are high in sugar, Dr. Dalvi says. The resulting crash after a sugar rush might lead to brain fog and fatigue, he says.
"Social engagement with family and friends is also an important way to keep those neurons firing," Dr. Dalvi says.
In fact, a lack of social connections is not only a major source of stress as we age, Walf adds, but it's also linked with greater cognitive decline, higher risk of depression and earlier death, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Consider connecting and keeping your mind active through meet-up groups, fitness classes, book clubs, volunteer organizations and even social media.
5. Play Mind Games
Keeping the mind engaged can be as simple as breaking out the chessboard, Walf says. Much like learning new hobbies or information, strengthening existing mental skills helps maintain brain health. In other words, she says, "use it or lose it."
Participating in mental activities such as chess, bridge or crossword or jigsaw puzzles can help keep the brain sharp, according to the Cleveland Clinic, and — bonus! — involve some social interaction, too.
6. Focus on Lowering Stress
The negative effects of chronic stress have been linked to advanced aging of both the brain and the body, Walf says. She recommends getting a hold of stress by first connecting with yourself.
"Honing self-awareness is important for recognizing that you are stressed," she says. "Taking time to check in with yourself on a regular basis reminds us when we are feeling stressed."
When you are, try focusing your attention on your breath while you take a few deep inhales and exhales, spending a few minutes snuggling with your pet or turning on your favorite song.
Dr. Dalvi recommends writing in a journal, both to reduce stress and flex your brainpower: "A paragraph or even a few sentences every day recalling highlights and observations can be a good way to keep those neurons connected," he says.
Note, too, "the many times we are not feeling stressed," Walf adds — and see if you can incorporate more of those activities that make you feel calm.
7. Get Some Rest
Quality sleep is important to brain function. It helps nerve cells communicate and maintains the pathways that help facilitate learning. "A good night's sleep is essential for brain health," Dr. Dalvi says.
Aim for seven to eight hours of shut-eye a night. Sleeping less or more than that is associated with poor cognitive function, per a May 2014 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
Help yourself nod off by avoiding caffeine too late in the afternoon or evening and minimizing your screen time in the hours before bed, Dr. Dalvi says. It's also smart to keep your bedroom dark and cool (between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit) and create a calming nighttime routine to help you wind down and prepare to sleep.
- Neuroimage: "Effect of aerobic exercise on hippocampal volume in humans: A systematic review and meta-analysis"
- Journals of Gerontology: "The Impact of Learning Multiple Real-World Skills on Cognitive Abilities and Functional Independence in Healthy Older Adults"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Foods linked to better brainpower"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The health benefits of strong relationships"
- Cleveland Clinic: "3 Ways to Boost Your Brain Health and Lower Your Risk of Alzheimer’s"
- Journal of the American Geriatrics Society: "Sleep Duration in Midlife and Later Life in Relation to Cognition"
- The Journals ofThe Impact of Learning Multiple Real-World Skills on Cognitive Abilities and Functional Independence in Healthy Older Adults" Gerontology: "
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Foods linked to better brainpower"
- Frontiers in Psychology: "Only Three Fingers Write, but the Whole Brain Works†: A High-Density EEG Study Showing Advantages of Drawing Over Typing for Learning"
- Journal of Clinical Neurology: "Risk of Dementia in Long-Term Benzodiazepine Users: Evidence from a Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies"