Keeping an aging brain sharp

When we spot a wrinkle or gray hair, some people may respond by quickly looking for ways to cover up the signs of aging. We try vitamins, supplements and skin care regimes in the hopes it’ll keep us looking and feeling young. But what about the important organ that makes us who we are? How do we keep our brain from aging?

Whether we like it or not, our brains change as we get older. Maybe the name of that restaurant you went to last month is on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t quite remember it. Or reading glasses might be your new accessory. Whatever it may be, we begin to notice small differences in how our bodies work.

Your brain controls every function of your body, processing information from your senses and sending messages back. And as you get older, certain parts of your brain begin to shrink slowing down its functions. This is why as we age, we begin to notice changes in how we think or move. 

Your brain is continuously changing and developing during your life, but even as some parts begin to shrink and some functions become weaker, other parts of your brain may actually improve. Although it might forget small details, the aging brain is better at understanding the big picture — maybe that’s why your grandfather always appears to be so wise.

A large factor of how your brain ages is dependent on your genetics, but there are ways to help keep your brain sharper, longer. And remember, it’s never too early to work on your brain health.

  • Make healthier lifestyle choices. Exercise may slow brain aging by 10 years, according to a study. Lifestyle choices that help reduce cardiovascular risk, like exercise, a healthy diet and low-to-moderate alcohol consumption, appear to also slow brain aging.
  • Use it or lose it. Whether it’s crossword puzzles, reading or painting, keeping your brain mentally stimulated may help keep it young. These kinds of activities can stimulate new connections between nerve cells and may even produce new cells.
  • Protect your head. Head injuries increase the risk of cognitive impairment, even if they occur early in life.
  • Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation can lead to problems with memory and cognitive abilities. Sleep is essential for brain maintenance, like removing built-up toxins in your brain.
  • Don’t smoke and limit your alcohol. Smoking decreases the brain’s efficiency associated with memory and excessive alcohol consumption can slow down the communication of brain cells.
  • Stay social. Research suggests memory declines at a slower rate for social adults.
  • Keep emotions in check. Managing stress is important to decrease the risk of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, which may be draining on the brain.

There are factors that may contribute to faster decline. The largest brain study recently published used SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) imaging to predict brain aging and link common disorders to accelerated aging. The study found accelerated aging for conditions such as, Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder and ADHD. Cannabis and alcohol abuse were also shown to accelerate the aging process.

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia damage brain tissue leading to more serious and rapid cognitive loss. In addition, common diseases in older adults, such as diabetes and heart disease may affect brain function.

As you age, embrace and be aware of the changes. If you notice abnormal or rapid changes, talk to your doctor.

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