If it seems that you’re increasingly stumped when trying to recall a word, or if you’re finding yourself walking into your bedroom or kitchen but not remembering just what you’d planned to do there – you’re not alone. Many of us have more of these experiences as we enter our 40s and 50s. And while this may be disconcerting, it’s less likely that you’re experiencing a serious condition such as Alzheimer’s than that you’re having normal symptoms of brain aging, said Marc Agronin, MD, medical director for Mental Health and Memory Services at Miami Jewish Health Systems in Florida and author of upcoming book The End of Old Age: Living a Longer, More Purposeful Life.
Many of our cognitive skills begin to decline as we age, he explained, including processing speed (how fast you can take in new information and respond to it), working memory (short-term recall), and social cognition (the ability to perceive and interpret social information, like body language or facial expressions). “Many of our intellectual abilities peak in our 30s and 40s,” he added, “and it’s a slow decline thereafter. We have more trouble with memory, more ‘tip of the tongue’ experiences.”
What exactly happens to the brain that causes these symptoms? According to Jenepher Piper, MSN, CRNP, who practices in a psychiatry office near Baltimore Maryland, neural pathways, or the pathways along which information travels through the nerve cells, begin to deteriorate, largely as a result of oxidative stress through normal metabolic processes as well as environmental toxins. “Like most things, the brain begins to break down, and calcification and shrinkage can occur, making the brain harder and smaller,” she explained.
Sounds grim, to be sure. But research over the past decade or so, largely driven by the “Baby Boomer” population, has revealed that there is much we can do – and avoid doing – to keep our brain power from totally going south. “Baby Boomers are bringing the same attention to healthy practices they pioneered for the body to the mind,” claimed Dr. Agronin.
Here are some things you can do now to keep your brain as healthy as possible as you get older:
- Stay physically active. “The newest research supports that physical exercise is one of the most important factors in maintaining brain health,” said Nicki Nance, PhD, assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. Exercise improves blood flow to the brain, decreases oxidative stress inducing inflammation, and releases growth factors, which are chemicals in the brain that can affect the health and survival of brain cells.
- Eat a healthy diet to minimize oxidative stress, advised Dr. Agronin. “A Mediterranean style diet with lots of fruits and veggies, olive and nut oils, can help lower your risk of brain degeneration, and may improve cognition,” he said.
- Decrease psychological stress. Excess stress is harmful for the brain because it causes the body to release hormones like insulin and cortisol, which in turn set off inflammatory responses, said Piper. Take a walk, practice meditation or yoga, socialize with friends – anything that helps you to stay calm.
- Minimize use of substances like alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. While some studies have suggested that moderate intake of wine (1-2 glasses 5 days a week) may actually help to slow down brain aging, “substance overuse/abuse is the enemy of the brain,” said Dr. Agronin. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, chronic heavy use of alcohol can shrink the brain and impair intellectual functioning.
- Exercise your brain with activities like Sudoku, crossword puzzles, or games. But you don’t have to just do these things. Learning a new language, sport, or instrument challenges the brain to think in a new way, which is the best brain exercise ever, according to Nance. “Learning new things and staying on a job that requires strategic thinking can provide the same kind of stimulation and neural pathway building,” she claimed.
- Nurture your social and spiritual self, recommended Dr. Agronin. “Social and spiritual activity can give you a purpose in life and help you to see the value of aging,” he said. “Being part of a community and a family are critical elements that can make all the difference in the world.”
One last thought to keep in mind: While advancing years will take their toll on many of your cognitive functions, there are a few aspects of the brain that only fully develop in your mid-60s and beyond. “Vocabulary, creative abilities, and wisdom tend to improve with age,” said Dr. Agronin.
Now that’s definitely something to look forward to.
SUPPLEMENTS FOR BRAIN HEALTH
Are there supplements you can take to improve your brain health? While nothing takes the place of healthy, whole foods, many people’s diets don’t provide enough of certain brain protective nutrients. According to Jenepher Piper, MSN, CRNP, who practices in a psychiatry office near Baltimore Maryland, taking supplements of B12, folate (folic acid), and fish oil can help to reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
If possible, she added, look for methylated forms of B12 and folate, as some people’s bodies have trouble metabolizing the supplements and methylation helps to convert the nutrients to a more active form that the body can utilize.
By Linda Hepler, BSN, RN