Do you worry about your memory or cognitive abilities as you age? If so, you’re not alone.
According to one survey, 64% of all Americans say their biggest fear about growing older is that they will be diagnosed with dementia. While age is a factor in dementia, it is not an inevitable part of getting older.
Even without dementia, it is normal to expect some cognitive changes as you age. Like other parts of our body, our brain transforms with age. For example, your brain loses mass overall, but the parts of the brain responsible for cognitive functions – the hippocampus and frontal lobe – shrink more so than other areas. Additionally, neurons may not connect as well, and brain flow, in many cases, decreases.
Dr. Hillary Lum, a geriatrician and associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s Division of Geriatric Medicine, says that the brain changes for different people in different ways and at different times.
“I think that we will often notice changes that affect our ability to multitask, recall names or events, and our speed may slow down, but that doesn’t mean that everyone will lose their ability to think for themselves, and it doesn’t mean that everyone will develop memory loss,” she said.
But don’t despair (stress is not good for your brain) over these changes. There are also benefits to an aging brain and strategies you can follow to help preserve your brain health and reduce the risk of developing dementia.
Brianne Bettcher, PhD, an associate professor and neuropsychologist in the Departments of Neurology and Neurosurgery and a clinical researcher at the University of Colorado Alzheimer’s and Cognition Center, said it not all negative when it comes to getting older.
“I do think we often focus on the concerning aspects of brain health, but it’s important to point out that we do see some positive changes, including an increase in our vocabulary and general knowledge,” she said.
When do these changes take place?
Although dementia is more common in older adults, a person’s lifestyle and overall health influence your risk for developing dementia, Bettcher said. Midlife seems to be a particularly critical period of time when health factors might influence our brain aging outcomes later in life.
When should you worry?
Some cognitive slowdown can be normal as you age. However, cognitive impairment is not. For example, walking into a room and forgetting why you went there or not being able to recall a name or word (tip of the tongue syndrome) is normal. However, if you or someone close to you notices these things happening more frequently than they used to, that can be a red flag. “Change is the biggest thing,” says Bettcher.
For example, if you’ve always had problems parallel parking or navigating, then continuing to have those problems is not a sign. However, if you’ve been very good at those things throughout your life and are suddenly having trouble with them, you should check in with your doctor.
To learn more about Dr. Bettcher’s research and ways to participate in studies on how to prevent dementia and cognitive decline, visit the The Colorado Aging Brain Lab website.
“The brain is a dynamic organ, and brain health is a dynamic process that can change and be modified at any age. We think many neurological disorders start to develop decades before anyone shows symptoms. We’re learning more about how what we do in young adulthood and during midlife also likely impact our brain health later in life.”
In other words, you’re never too young or too old to make healthy lifestyle choices.
How to boost brain health
There are ways to reduce your risk of developing dementia. The good news is that studies show the rates of dementia have declined over the last three decades in the U.S. and Europe. Experts attribute this positive news to changes in lifestyle, nutrition and education.
Here are some brain-boosting lifestyle interventions you and your loved ones can make to reduce your risks.
Get your hearing checked
Hearing loss is one of the top risk factors for dementia, although the reasons why are not fully understood yet. Possible explanations are that hearing loss can lead to becoming socially isolated (another risk factor of dementia) because it’s challenging to engage with others.
Also, when you can’t hear, your brain strains and uses a lot of energy to listen – often at the expense of other brain functions such as memory and thinking. The good news is that studies show that hearing loss is only a factor in dementia if you don’t address it by wearing hearing aids.
Very few lists don’t include exercise as a way to boost your physical health, and it should be no surprise that exercise can also improve your brain health. Regular exercise can help prevent obesity, lower blood pressure, reduce stress and improve sleep, all factors in reducing your risk of dementia. Additionally, studies show that aerobic exercise increases brain volume in gray and white matter regions.
Social interaction can protect your brain from declining and build cognitive reserve, which refers to how well your brain uses the resources it has available. Lum points out that social interaction can reduce loneliness and social isolation, two contributing factors to a decline in brain health.
“Older adults can tend to be more isolated or perceive that they are alone, which is loneliness. So, I think making a specific effort to connect to enjoyable social interaction is very important,” she said.
Avoid brain injury
While you may think brain injuries can be challenging to avoid, there are practical ways to protect your head and reduce your risk of injury that can lead to dementia. For example, you can take yoga or other classes that help balance and fall prevention. In addition, wear shoes with non-skid soles. Lastly, always wear your seatbelt and a helmet when playing contact sports or participating in activities where you can fall, such as biking or skiing.
Engage in stimulating activities
The adage, use it or lose it, also applies to your brain. Research shows activities that require brain power may stimulate new connections between nerve cells and possibly help the brain generate new cells. But Bettcher advises focusing on stimulating activities you enjoy, such as reading or going to museums.
“It’s important to focus on things that you find meaningful and stimulating intellectually but are not stressful,” Bettcher said. “If you find crosswords or learning a new language stressful, then don’t do them.”
Is it your memory, or is it your medication? Many commonly-prescribed drugs can lead to fogginess and memory lapses. Some of these culprits include certain antianxiety medications, sleeping medications, and incontinence medications. Some over-the-counter medications and supplements may also cause memory issues. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you’re concerned.
Sleep is vital to brain health. Research suggests that a good night’s sleep is necessary to flush out toxins that accumulate in your brain when you’re awake. While some experts recommend seven to nine hours for optimal health, Lum advises her patients to focus on quality over quantity.
“The amount of time we need to sleep decreases with age. I try not to ask people to reach a certain sleep goal, but instead, we talk about their sleep patterns and find out if any routines are interfering with sleep, such as caffeine or alcohol, both of which can decrease how well someone sleeps.”
Focus on heart health
Another adage holds: what’s good for your heart is good for your head. Factors that contribute to heart disease and stroke, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol, can interfere with blood flow and oxygen to the brain, increasing your risk for vascular dementia.
“Focusing on cardiovascular health has been one of the biggest predictors over time [for dementia],” said Bettcher. “Make sure you meet with your primary care doctor regularly to monitor your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar if you have diabetes.”
Exercise, diet, and quitting smoking can also help your brain, as well as your heart.
Eat a healthy diet
Bettcher says she’s reticent to recommend one specific diet, but at her clinic, they include information on the MIND diet, which combines aspects of the Mediterranean and DASH diets. This diet focuses on fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, olive oil, fish, and other seafood and has been shown in studies to reduce the risk of dementia. That said, it is not clear if it reduces dementia itself or just the risk factors, such as obesity, high blood pressure, etc., that can increase your risk. In Lum’s clinic, she advises to her patients to focus on balance when it comes to their diet.
“I advise against being overly restrictive in terms of what some individuals eat,” she said.