Growing older is a natural process we all face, but it is not one that has to limit us. While your body may not be able to do what it used to, there are still many things you can do to keep your mind healthy, sharp, and alert. Researchers have found that many age-related changes that affect the mind such as memory loss, can be due to lifestyle-related choices. Just as the body becomes weaker from immobility or lack of exercise, so does the brain.
A marked decline in mental abilities may be due to factors such as prescription medications or disease. Older individuals are more likely to take a variety of medications for chronic conditions that might affect mental acuity. It’s worth checking with your doctor to make sure any cognitive changes, such as memory loss or fuzzy thinking, aren’t associated with illness or a combination of prescriptions you’re taking.
Certain diseases that are more common to old age, such as Alzheimer’s disease, can also be the underlying cause of declining mental abilities. However, there are some normal age-related changes to the brain that can occur, including:
- Fat and other deposits accumulating within brain cells (neurons), which hinder their functioning
- Neurons dying from ‘old age’ that are not replaced
- Loss of neurons which can cause the brain to get smaller with age
- Messages between neurons slow down
The good news is that a brain that gets smaller and lighter with age can still function as effectively as a younger brain. For example, an older brain can create new connections between neurons if given the opportunity. There is evidence to suggest that mental abilities are ‘shared’ by various parts of the brain so, as some neurons die, their roles are taken up by others. The trick is to stay mentally and physically active so your brain is “forced” to work harder and stay fit.
Researchers at Stanford University found that memory loss can be improved by 30 to 50 percent simply by doing mental exercises. The brain is like a muscle — if you don’t give it regular workouts, its functions will decline. Suggestions include:
- Keep up your social life and engage in plenty of stimulating conversations
- Read newspapers, magazines and books – topics and genres don’t matter – read what you like
- Play ‘thinking’ games such as word association and knowledge games
- Take a course on a subject that interests you
- Cultivate a new hobby to improve the brain’s spatial awareness and fine motor activities
- Learn a language
- Do crossword puzzles
- Play games that challenge the intellect and memory, such as chess
- Watch ‘question and answer’ game shows on television, and play along with the contestants
- Keep stress under control with meditation and regular relaxation
Of course, physical activity is a key component of mental sharpness as well as overall health. Some conditions that can affect the brain’s ability to function, such as stroke, are associated with diet, obesity and sedentary lifestyle choices. Keeping an active body is crucial if you want an active mind. Suggestions include:
- At least 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day delivers an oxygen boost to the brain.
- Exercising in three 10-minute blocks is enough to deliver significant health benefits.
- Engage regularly in a fun, physical activity such as dancing, gardening, or an appropriate sport for your physical condition
- A variety of regular exercise can improve your brain’s memory, reasoning abilities, and reaction times.
- Avoid the complications of obesity (such as diabetes and heart disease) by maintaining a healthy weight for your height.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables, fiber, and protein; low in processed foods, sugar, and saturated fats
- Avoid smoking and drinking to excess.
In many ways, the mind is still a scientific mystery and we are constantly trying to understand it more. One thing is certain though: your brain can deteriorate if you don’t take care of it. The key to maintaining your brain’s health is engagement. Through mental, physical, and social activity, your brain will stay busy. And developing a routine combining the three can put you at a lower risk for disease and keep your mind sharp as you get older.