How to Keep Your Mind Sharp
As we age, our brains naturally shrink, which impacts memory and learning functions and increases our risk for dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Here are six things you can do at any age to combat brain atrophy, improve overall function and health, and increase your quality of life during retirement.
Just as our bodies age, so do our brains. For the body, this includes our bones condensing causing us to shrink in stature, our skin wrinkling as it loses elasticity, and our fat tissue increasing while our muscle mass decreases. As for our brains, they shrink naturally as we age beginning in our 30s and even more by age 60.
How to Keep Your Brain Sharp
The good news is that just as there are actions you can take to help decrease the rate of physical aging. There are also actions you can take to help delay brain aging and aid healthy aging. Here are the best ways to keep your brain sharp as you age and improve the quality of your retirement life.
1. Exercise Regularly
Exercise can benefit your physical health as much as your cognitive and mental wellness by improving memory and learning capabilities, increasing problem-solving, and reducing anxiety and depression.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Sciences recommends that every week beginning at age 18, adults should do muscle strengthening exercises — such as lifting weights — twice a week, combined with at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate physical intensity — such as walking or water aerobics — or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous aerobic physical activity — such as running or spin classes. Those numbers can seem overwhelming, but they break down to about 20 to 40 minutes of moderate activity every day or 10 to 20 minutes of intense activity daily.
Exercise may be one of the most important things you can do for overall brain health. But it’s important to remember that it isn’t about hitting a quota or competing with others, but moving as much as your body allows. This can include doing exercises while seated in a chair if walking or other physical activities are not possible.
2. Eat Healthy and Take Your Vitamins
Diet can impact your cognitive health as much as your physical. According to an article from the American Academy of Neurology, eating a Mediterranean diet positively benefits brain health in older adults by reducing brain atrophy and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. This includes a diet consisting of large amounts of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, and a moderate amount of fish, dairy, and wine.
In addition to following a healthy diet and taking vitamin supplements, reducing your sugar intake can help stimulate your mind, too.
3. Stimulate Your Brain
At any age, the best way to keep your brain sharp is to actively engage it. This can come in several forms, from learning a new craft, skill or foreign language to reading, writing, pursuing an artistic hobby or even putting together a puzzle.
According to a study by the Mayo Clinic, those who engaged in artistic hobbies in their later years were 73% less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment than those who didn’t. Similarly, those who crafted were 45% less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment.
Even regularly using a computer to browse the internet, play video games or online shop can reduce the risk by 53%.
Meditation for seniors is a great activity to reduce the effects of aging on the brain while improving attention, concentration and even relieving stress and depression. A study by UCLA found that long-term meditators had more grey matter later in life than those who didn’t regularly engage in the practice.
4. Reduce Cigarette and Alcohol Intake
While a glass of red wine a day may have overall health benefits, drinking and smoking can both accelerate the rate at which our brains age.
In one of the largest studies conducted of its kind, researchers at the University of Southern California found that the brain aged seven-and-a-half days for every gram of alcohol consumed. For context, the average can of beer contains 14 grams of alcohol. The brain also aged 11 days faster among those who smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for a year.
5. Control Your Blood Pressure
Having high blood pressure can elevate the risk for slower mental processing speed, reduced executive function, overall early brain aging, and even Alzheimer’s disease. That’s because high blood pressure can cause blood clots which narrows or eliminates blood flow to the brain.
However, in conjunction with taking any prescribed medications, you can control your blood pressure by engaging in the other recommendations, such as exercising, eating a well-balanced diet, meditating, and spending time with family and friends.
Throughout history, humans have relied on societies and communities for survival. It turns out, spending time around other people also helps boost our brain health. According to an article from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, social isolation and loneliness is associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia, 32% increased risk of stroke, and higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
However, this doesn’t mean you have to hang out in crowds or with large groups of people. Having a few close friends, spending more time with neighbors, volunteering at a community center, or even adopting a pet can help significantly. When socializing in person isn’t possible or desirable, connecting with others online can also help reduce the rate your brain ages while elevating your mood.
What Is Age-Related Brain Shrinkage?
Your brain starts to shrink when you’re in your 30s or 40s, but the rate of shrinkage typically increases once you hit your 60s.
Age-related brain shrinkage is normal, it happens to everyone. But it will cause some differences that you will likely notice as you age.
- Communication issues
- Decreased blood flow in the brain
- Difficulty learning new things
- Difficulty recalling the right words, vocabulary issues
- Injury or disease may cause increased brain inflammation
- Memory problems
- Slowing of mental functions due to decreased communication between nerve cells in the brain
Brain Shrinkage vs. Brain Atrophy
Normal age-related brain shrinkage is different from brain atrophy — which is the loss of brain cells and connections between brain cells. Brain atrophy typically causes a loss of mental function much greater than normal as you age.
- Family history of Huntington’s disease or other genetic disorder
- Family history of Alzheimer’s disease or other neurological disorder
- Brain or head injury
- Alcohol abuse
- Advanced age
There is a connection between brain atrophy and dementia, according to the Cleveland Clinic. But normal age-related brain shrinkage does not necessarily mean you will develop dementia.
How Dementia Can Affect Cognitive Skills
Dementia is a loss of cognitive function — your ability to think, remember and reason. It also involves the loss of behavioral abilities, making daily life and activities difficult or impossible.
Symptoms differ greatly from normal age-related forgetfulness.
- Acting impulsively
- Difficulty handling money or paying bills
- Difficulty reading and writing
- Difficulty speaking
- Difficulty understanding and expressing thoughts
- Hallucinating, experiencing delusions, paranoia
- Losing interest in daily activities
- Memory loss, poor judgement and confusion
- Not caring for the feelings of others
- Problems with movement or loss of balance
- Repeating the same question over and over
- Taking longer than normal to complete daily tasks
- Using incorrect or unusual words to refer to familiar objects
- Wandering and getting lost in familiar places
Science still hasn’t determined a definitive answer for the causes of dementia, though certain changes to the brain are linked to some specific types of dementia.
There are no proven methods to prevent dementia, but the National Institute on Aging recommends that living a healthy lifestyle — including controlling high blood pressure, maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, keeping physically, mentally and socially active and treating hearing problems — can reduce your risk of dementia.
9 Cited Research Articles
- Public Health Now. (2022, June 7). Changes That Occur to the Aging Brain: What Happens When We Get Older. Retrieved from: https://www.publichealth.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/changes-occur-aging-brain-what-happens-when-we-get-older
- Ning, K. et al. (2020, January 30). Association of Relative Brain Age with Tobacco Smoking, Alcohol Consumption, and Genetic Variants. Retrieved from: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-56089-4
- Di Liegro, C., et al. (2019, September 17). Physical Activity and Brain Health. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6770965/
- Sandoiu, A. (2017, January 5). Mediterranean Diet Prevents Brain Atrophy, Study Finds. Retrieved from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/315025
- Firger, J. (2015, April 8). Which Hobbies Help an Aging Brain? Retrieved from: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/which-hobbies-help-an-aging-brain/
- Luders, E., et al. (2015, January 21). Forever Young(er): Potential Age-Defying Effects of Long-Term Meditation on Gray Matter Atrophy. Retrieved from: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01551/full
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. (n.d.). Cerebral Atrophy. Retrieved from: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/disorders/cerebral-atrophy
- Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Hidden Brain Risk: Midlife High Blood Pressure. Retrieved from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/hidden-brain-risk-midlife-high-blood-pressure
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.) Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html