Aging isn’t always so fun. Your body starts making sounds like a settling old house. One day you’re in your prime, and the next, you’re googling whether “senior moment” is a medically recognized condition.
The thing about aging is that it’s sneaky, like a ninja with joint pain. You try to recall a name, and your brain’s like, “We have names in here somewhere, but we’re going to need to file a request for that. Check back in two to five business days.”
And everybody is scared that this means Alzheimer’s. Neuropsychologists refer to people experiencing this dementia paranoia as “the worried well.” Slight changes in memory and cognition are normal as you age. It’s only if you begin to forget the names of close family members or get lost in familiar places that you should be concerned.
That said, dementia is on the rise and there is no cure. We can, however, do things to prevent or delay it. And whether you’re young or old, the best time to start doing those things is now. So let’s cover the science of what can help. Standard caveat applies: I’m not a doctor. If you have serious concerns, see a professional.
That said, we’re gonna get some help from an expert. Voneta M. Dotson is a neuropsychologist and professor of gerontology at Georgia State University. Her book is “Keep Your Wits About You: The Science of Brain Maintenance as You Age.”
Let’s get to it…
If aliens observed us, they’d think we’re a species that enjoys running to nowhere, lifting heavy things only to put them down again, and contorting our bodies in hot rooms while someone in Lululemon pants yells at us about inner peace. But exercise, as you may have heard, is vital.
One study following seniors for a decade found the more physically active ones experienced less cognitive decline over time. More blood flow to your brain means more oxygen, and more oxygen means your brain cells are less likely to throw a retirement party and leave you.
Same applies for serious mental health conditions like Alzheimer’s. The Adult Changes in Thought Study followed seniors for 6 years and found that those who exercised 3 times a week had a 32% reduction in their chance of developing dementia.
But research shows the beginnings of dementia often start looooong before you see symptoms — and so preventive efforts need to start earlier too. Who consistently has lower rates of cognitive decline? People who reported being physically active in their 40’s.
So what kind of exercise should you be doing? Aerobic stuff is best. Anything good for your heart is good for your brain. That said, resistance training is valuable as well. You lift heavy things, put them down, then lift them again, as if you’re trying to appease some angry god who really likes repetition. But it really makes a difference. The gym is like the DMV – nobody really wants to be there, but we all know it’s necessary.
The American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine say adults over 18 should try to get moderate-intensity aerobic activity (think brisk walking or stair climber) for a minimum of 150 minutes each week or vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (like soccer, basketball or dance) for a minimum of 75 minutes a week. And then add in strength training (like lifting weights) twice a week.
The key to sticking with exercise is finding something you enjoy doing. Like sweating in a room with twenty other people, all trying not to fart? Maybe yoga is for you! Do something fun. That’s how you keep your brain sharp as you gracefully slide into the “I make noises when I bend down” phase of life. (For more on effective exercise routines, click here.)
Okay, you’re moving enough to remind your joints they’re not just ornamental. What else?
Unfortunately, the brain’s motto is essentially, “If you don’t make me think hard, I’ll make sure you can’t think at all.” Yes, it’s use it or lose it. Voneta writes that a “high level of cognitive activity later in life is associated with a nearly 50% reduced risk of developing dementia 4 to 5 years later.” So if you’re trying to avoid being that person who calls their grandkid because “the Netflix is broken”, read more, think more, and challenge yourself more.
And, once again, starting these good behaviors early pays off. Bill Gifford notes that, “A study of nearly two thousand elderly people published in June 2014 in JAMA Neurology found that those who had used their brains more from age forty onward were able to delay the onset of memory loss by more than ten years.”
And please don’t think that those heavily marketed “brain fitness” games are going to help. Voneta says there’s no research they work. What will help is novelty and challenge. Do things that engage your brain, stretch your thinking, and are enjoyable.
Read more (good) books, take up new hobbies. It’s about stepping out of your comfort zone, trying things that make you a little bit scared and a lot bit excited. So go ahead, sign up for that salsa dancing class, or start learning Dothraki. (For more on finding something you’re passionate about and getting good at it, click here.)
Working your muscles and working your brain may not sound like much fun. You know what is?
Neuroscience studies found a correlation between reported loneliness and the level of amyloid beta and tau pathology in the entorhinal cortex. Translation: lonely people had greater signs of Alzheimer’s development in the hub of their brain’s memory network. Forget how important your friends are and you will soon forget who your friends are.
Quantity and quality both matter. Having deep friendships and seeing friends frequently were both tied to better cognitive functioning and slower cognitive decline later in life.
Want bonus points? Start combining what we’ve covered so far. Exercise with friends. Do mentally challenging activities together like playing trivia games.
Alright, you knew this was coming, so let’s get it over with. Shockingly, what you put in your body affects your brain…
Same rule that applies to exercise applies to nutrition: what’s good for your heart is good for your brain. So we’re looking at that Mediterranean-style diet you hear about a lot – and rarely see on your dinner table: Veggies, fruits, grains, beans, fish and olive oil. Eggs, dairy and poultry in moderation. Take it easy on the red meat, refined grains, and sweets.
And just like “brain games”, “brain supplements” don’t work. Voneta writes, “In 2015, a meta-analysis combining the results of 24 different studies on brain health supplements concluded that supplements had no impact on cognitive functioning in middle-age and older adults.”
Yes, eating healthy isn’t always a delight. But even little changes can make a difference. A 2017 JAMA article showed eating just one serving of fruit a day reduces the probability of death by cardiovascular disease by 8%. Not a bad deal. (For more on how to eat healthier, click here.)
And now it’s time to discuss something blissful, something you love, and something you should stop denying yourself…
Sleep deprivation is bad for your brain. It prevents your gray matter from clearing accumulated waste that can increase the chance of Alzheimer’s. And we don’t get enough sleep. We even admit it: 43% of people over 50 said they know they’re not engaging in enough shut eye.
Some older folks will say they don’t need as much sleep but the research says that’s probably not true. Seniors need the same amount – they just have trouble doing it.
Getting a full night’s sleep when you’re older is like participating in a reality show where the challenges include the bladder’s whims, the mysterious aches that weren’t there yesterday, and the 3 AM brain festival where you remember every embarrassing thing you’ve ever done since 1984. And then there’s insomnia, the unsolicited DJ of the brain, who cranks up the volume on your inner monologue just when you’re trying to close the club for the night. As we age, we have less deep sleep and are more vulnerable to sleep disturbances. Either way, persistent, excessive sleepiness during daylight hours is not a normal part of aging.
What to do? Take sleep more seriously. Commit to getting 7-8 hours a night. This is what the Global Council on Brain health recommends as optimal for your gray matter. Cool it with the caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Keep that bedroom dark and chilly.
And the most important tip? Keep a consistent schedule. Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time. Avoid naps if they make it hard for you to fall asleep at night. (For more tips on getting better sleep, go here.)
Okay, time to round it all up and learn the final (happy) secret to keeping your mental motor running smoothly…
Here’s how to keep your brain sharp as you age…
And a 2011 UCSF study discovered that half of Alzheimer’s cases could be prevented by the combination of 7 things: avoid diabetes, avoid obesity, avoid hypertension, don’t smoke, dodge depression, get educated, and engage in exercise.
Notice the “dodge depression” one in there. I think that deserves special attention because it doesn’t get discussed enough. Voneta found that changes in mood, over time, actually affect brain function and even brain structure. And as we age, the connection between brain and mood only increases. If you’re unhappy with your life, please do something about it. The good news is that not only do many of the above tips keep your brain sharp, they can also help treat depression.
None of this advice is going to turn you into a supergenius or give you unbelievable mental powers, like the ability to understand “Tenet” the first time you watch it. But small changes can make a difference. It’s about treating your body like it’s a temple, even if sometimes it feels more like an ancient ruin.
If all this seems overwhelming, what are the 3 most important things to do? Exercise, cognitive activity and socializing. And, done right, all three are fun. And fun means smiles. And smiles help your brain too. So exercise, read a good book, see your friends. And laugh. Laugh at the changes age brings us.
After all, if you can’t laugh at yourself for calling your kids by the dog’s name, what can you laugh at?