Now, modern medicine knows a great deal about these biological machines: how they work, how to keep them healthy and how to fix them when they break. Yet the brain still remains something of an elusive mystery. Why is it that some people stay lucid and sharp well into their 90s while others begin to experience memory loss and cognitive decline as early as their 40s or 50s?
In geriatric medicine, we rarely tell our patients that they are experiencing problems “just because you’re getting older.” Usually, that’s simply not true. Unfortunately, however, I have to tell you that brain cell loss is a natural phenomenon that goes along with the aging process. You are born with the maximum number of brain cells you will ever have, and that number decreases over time--no matter what. There are some things that will hasten the decline: smoking, drinking and recreational drugs, and repetitive head injuries, for example. Clearly, it’s best not to deliberately engage in such brain cell-killing activities!
Risky behavior aside, what proactive steps can you take to keep your mind fit and healthy as you grow older? It seems that the advice our mothers and grandmothers gave us was solid. While genetics certainly play a role, good, clean living undoubtedly contributes to mental longevity. Treat your body as a temple and your brain will serve you better in your later years. No matter what your age or what health challenges you may be facing today, try integrating some of these habits into your routine to stay mentally spry.
Take good care of your heart. It’s important to remember that everything in the body is interrelated with everything else. Research is increasingly pointing to the connection between brain health and cardiovascular health. So the things you do to keep your heart fit will also positively affect your brain.
We’ve been aware of the link between obesity and dementia for years. Then, a 2011 Swedish study showed us that being even somewhat overweight increases the risk. In fact, overweight middle aged people are 71% more likely to develop dementia. So do your heart and your brain a favor—lose those extra 10 pounds!
Never stop learning. Henry Ford said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”And he was right. In 1986, scientists began to study the brains of 678 elderly Catholic sisters. Dubbed the “Nun Study,” this ongoing groundbreaking work has demonstrated that intellectual pursuits may protect you from Alzheimer’s disease. Exercising the brain with activities such as Sudoku or crossword puzzles, learning a new language, mastering the fine art of email, or reading and discussing a book can help keep your neurons healthy and vital.
Feed your body well. Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, and healthy fats such as nuts and olive oil. Limit red meats and fried, fast and highly processed foods. The Nun Study demonstrated a positive relationship between folic acid and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, and vitamins C and E may also be beneficial (although this research is inconclusive).
A new study of 700 people in their 70’s published in the clinical journal, Neurology
, demonstrated that people who were most physically active experienced the least brain shrinkage over time. Although we’re not sure exactly why this is true, the thinking is that exercise increases the oxygenation of all tissues, including the brain (which is a good thing!). And, again, the heart/brain connection comes into play here. Improving your cardiovascular fitness through exercise will have a positive impact on your brain.
You don’t have to run marathons or pump iron to get this benefit. Figure out what type of exercise is right for you, and then stick to it! Even a leisurely walk, seated exercises, or a gentle water aerobics class will help. (But be sure to talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program.)
Surround yourself with family and friends.
It’s no secret that isolation can lead to depression, and it’s been shown that depression and cognitive decline go hand in hand. A 2012 study in the British Medical Journal found physically active seniors with a “moderate social network” lived about five years longer than sedentary, isolated people. Don’t stay home alone! Participate in weekly bridge games, lunch with the ladies, book club, outings to the museum, or weekends with the family. Staying socially engaged and connected will help you remain happy and sharp.
Protect your noggin. Head trauma can cause brain damage, leaving you more susceptible to memory loss and cognitive decline. So wear a helmet if you are bicycling, skiing, or playing other potentially risky sports. Of course, wear your seat belt at all times in motor vehicles. And take steps to prevent falling.
Have a sunny disposition. The Nun Study also found that those who displayed more positive emotions lived the longest. The study further hypothesized that positive emotions helped neural connections in the brain to keep firing while negative emotions might disrupt the neural network. Although it can’t be unequivocally measured, I’ve seen evidence of this with my own patients—those who are positive and determined to be well often have the quickest and most robust recoveries. Who knows? In conjunction with other healthy habits, a fierce determination to keep your memory sharp just might help.
Consume alcohol only in moderation. Alcohol has a direct effect on brain cells. Drinking excessively over a prolonged period of time can result in alcohol dementia, also known as Korsakoff Syndrome, resulting in serious cognitive problems, memory loss, and neurological damage. If you drink, by all means, limit the frequency and amount.
And, for heaven’s sake, if you smoke, quit! Enough said.
If you are concerned about memory loss or other cognitive issues, please have a frank and detailed conversation with your primary care physician. Together, you can determine what’s going on with you, personally, and map out the steps you should take to achieve the healthiest possible brain.
Did You Know?
The AARP has an entire section devoted to Brain Health on their Website.