What Happens to Your Brain As You Age and How to Protect It, According to Doctors

When it comes to staying healthy, protecting your brain function is just as important as protecting your physical body. Luckily, healthy habits will help you do both.

Although you might wish it wasn't so, your body and brain slowly break down as you age. And while there are infinite diets, supplements and wellness products that claim to stop this decline in its tracks, the truth is that aging is inevitable. (Otherwise, we'd all live forever.) But of course, there are things that you can do to keep yourself healthy for as long as possible.

We often talk about how to keep your physical body healthy as you age. But what about brain health? To answer this question, we asked two experts to give some insight into what happens to your brain as you age and what you can do to help protect it.

What Is Brain Health?

According to the National Institute on Aging, there are four main areas of brain health:

  1. Cognitive health refers to how well you think, learn and remember.
  2. Motor function is about how well your brain is able to create and control your body's movements and balance.
  3. Emotional function covers how well you can interpret and respond to both pleasant and unpleasant emotions.
  4. Tactile function measures how well your brain feels and responds to various sensations of touch, including pressure, pain and temperature.

When people talk about brain health, they're usually referring to cognitive health. But since all four areas of brain health are very interconnected—they all rely on proper brain function—the things that support one area typically also support the others.

What Happens to Your Cognitive Health as You Age?

Thomas Hammond, M.D., a neurologist at Baptist Health's Marcus Neuroscience Institute, explains that signs of normal cognitive aging tend to appear around the age of 45. "Normal aging will slow down retrieval of memory, and most individuals will have some difficulty remembering names of people, items or places as part of normal aging," he says, adding that at this age, those bits of memory usually come back within hours of first trying to recall them. "These minor glitches in memory are not a sign of evolving dementia or cognitive impairment."

On the other hand, "cognitive decline is a decrease in one's cognitive horsepower beyond what is expected for age," Hammond explains. "Forgetting conversations one has had, or appointments that are important are more worrisome and concerning [signs of] significant early cognitive impairment." Similarly, forgetting words or facts is a sign of early aging since this kind of memory loss doesn't typically happen until much later in life.

How Much Control Do You Have over Your Cognitive Health?

Like all aspects of health, a good portion of your cognitive health is out of your control. "Genetic factors may play a role in Alzheimer's disease, Lewy body dementia, Parkinson's disease, frontotemporal dementia and other degenerative neurologic conditions leading to cognitive impairment," Hammond says.

In addition, having a family history and genetic predisposition to certain heart conditions can raise your risk of cognitive decline and cognitive health conditions, Hammond explains. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes mellitus and a lack of physical activity all raise your risk of stroke, negatively affecting cognitive health.

That said, lifestyle factors also play a significant role in your cognitive health. "Yes, genetics plays a role," says George Grossberg, M.D., a geriatric psychiatrist at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital. A healthy upbringing and living environment, which are also largely out of your control, also play a key role. But, he says, lifestyle factors are important as well: "Living a meaningful and stimulating life without too much stress or trauma and establishing a healthy lifestyle [both] make a difference."

a collage of a brain with a clock over it
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How to Protect Your Cognitive Health

Grossberg states, "A healthy lifestyle involves being active on four fronts throughout life: physical activity, mental activity, social activity and spiritual activity/mindfulness."

Physical Activity

Physical activity is important because it reduces your risk of the cardiovascular issues mentioned above, which in turn reduces your risk of stroke and the resulting cognitive impairment. Hammond recommends getting at least 30 minutes five times per week, which aligns with the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. You don't have to go all-out every time. Still, a mix of moderate activity (like walking or casual bike riding), strength training and vigorous exercise (like running or tennis) will yield the most benefits.

Mental and Social Activities

Mental and social activities are just as important because they keep your brain sharp. "In order to ward off cognitive problems later in life, people should attempt to keep cognitively engaged in mid-life by reading, writing, using the computer for email, and participating in social activities such as card games or book clubs," Hammond says, adding that research suggests this kind of cognitive engagement may prevent cognitive decline as you age. For some people, these activities are a normal part of daily life. But for others, particularly retired older adults, it might be necessary to intentionally build these things into your routine.

Spiritual Activities

Hammond explains that the relationship between stress and cognitive health is complex—stress is a normal part of life, and short-term stress can actually be a good thing because it motivates us to focus and take action. "However, evidence suggests that chronic stress can adversely affect memory and increase the risk for dementia," Hammond says. The spiritual activities Grossman highlights, like mindfulness and intentional relaxation, also play a role in cognitive health. "Relaxation techniques, avoiding bad habits such as reviewing one's resentments, releasing grudges or things beyond your control, and working a gratitude list each day may be helpful tactics to [avoid chronic] stress," Hammond notes.

Nutritious Diet

No surprise, a nutritious diet can also go a long way in protecting your cognitive health as you age. Hammond and Grossman recommend the Mediterranean diet and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) Diet for cognitive health. But, you don't need to eat according to strict rules to reap the health benefits these diets offer. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, lean proteins and healthy fats, which you can do without sticking only to foods popular in Mediterranean countries. In fact, the principles of the Mediterranean diet can fit all cuisines and preferences. The DASH Diet encourages similar food choices but also recommends limiting sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day.

Hammond also adds that when it comes to alcohol, total avoidance is the gold standard, since some evidence suggests that any amount of alcohol consumption can negatively affect brain health; however, research is conflicting. That said, if you decide to drink responsibly, he recommends that males and females stick to no more than one drink per day.

Do Supplements Help Protect Your Brain Health?

Although supposedly brain-boosting supplements are everywhere, Grossman says there are "no wonder pills or products" to support brain health. While certain compounds, like omega-3 fatty acids, are linked to cognitive health, getting them through a healthy overall diet is far more beneficial than relying on a pill or powder. And many cognitive health supplements on the market contain active ingredients that haven't been proven to work and are poorly regulated.

The Bottom Line

If you've been incorporating healthy lifestyle habits, you've been protecting your cognitive health, whether you realize it or not. After all, what's good for your physical health is good for your cognitive health. Your brain is one of many major organs in your body—key recommendations like physical activity and proper nutrition are crucial to keeping it healthy.

While diet and exercise are important, there are other lifestyle factors you have control over. That said, focusing on cognitive health can help you view health holistically, which is good. By prioritizing social activity, mental activity and stress reduction, you can protect your brain health as you age while feeling better daily.

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