Brain health guide
As we get older, it’s important to take good care of our brains. Just as our bodies require extra TLC in later life, our brains will benefit from the same treatment.
Keeping your brain in good condition will help protect you against the risk of vascular death and ischemic stroke and also reduce your vulnerability to brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Not only that, but your mental health will get a boost too.
In this guide
How do our brains change as we age?
Our brains age just as our bodies do. But, while you may notice the outward effects of aging from your 30s and 40s, it can take longer to notice the changes that are taking place internally.
As we age, our brains shrink in size, start to slow down and find it harder to adapt to change. But there’s good news. The brain is resilient, and with the right care and conditions, it can continue to stay attuned and alert.
Why do we need to keep our brains healthy?
Factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, vascular disease, high cholesterol, smoking, stress, and lack of physical and mental activities can all contribute to a decline in brain health and make us more vulnerable to brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
According to Age UK, we can all benefit from better brain health, even those with a family history of mental decline in later life. It says that genes only account for 24% of the change in thinking skills across our lifetime, so there’s lots we can all do to boost how our brains function.
Regardless of your DNA, leading a healthy lifestyle will give you the best chance of warding off brain diseases and keeping your mind sharp in your later years.
Brain health facts and figures
Common brain health aliments
It can be difficult to know when cognitive changes are a normal part of the aging process and when its something more serious. Here are some of the most common brain health conditions explained.
General brain decline
Our cognitive skills change gradually throughout our lives, with a small decline as we get older. This is known as ‘normal cognitive aging’ and it means that our short-term memory, reasoning and the speed at which we can process information are all affected. So, while we know more than younger people, it may take us longer to complete tasks or figure things out.
As our brains are all unique, this process affects us all in different ways, and to varying degrees. Some people experience a more severe decline than the norm, and a lucky few may even find their cognitive skills improve with age!
Dementia is a term used to describe a range of diseases and conditions that affect the brain. These include Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia and frontotemporal dementia. Depending on which part of the brain is affected, symptoms may include memory loss, problems with language, difficulties solving problems, and changes to mood and behaviour.
The likelihood of developing dementia increases with age, with one in 14 people over the age of 65 affected. However, it can affect younger people too, and there are over 420,000 people in the UK living with dementia.
This is the most common form of dementia, affecting over 520,000 people in the UK. Alzheimer’s affects the connections between the nerve cells in the brain until they eventually die. It’s a progressive disease, so as time goes on it affects more parts of the brain, making symptoms increase and worsen.
Symptoms generally start off mild, with difficulties recalling things or retaining new information. As time goes on, memory problems will start to affect day-to-day life and speech, vision, concentration and orientation may also be affected.
Parkinson’s also causes problems in the brain that progress over time. It’s caused when the nerve cells that usually make dopamine die off. This means that people with Parkinson’s don’t have enough dopamine, the chemical responsible for regulating movement in the body. As a result, Parkinson’s can have a huge impact on a person’s ability to control movement and lead to involuntary shaking, slower movements and stiff muscles.
Medicines and brain health
Certain medication, particularly a group of drugs known as ‘anticholinergics’, can cause memory and thinking problems. Anticholinergics are used to treat many conditions and medication includes antihistamines, benzodiazepines, some antidepressants and muscle relaxants.
Older people who have been taking several different anticholinergics over a long time are more likely to experience side effects. It’s important to remember that everyone responds differently to medication, and that many are life saving. If you have concerns, don’t just stop taking the drugs – always talk it through with your doctor.
Keeping your brain healthy
There’s no single magic remedy, but research shows that it’s best to take a range of the following steps to keeping your brain functioning well.
When we exercise it improves blood flow and stimulates chemical changes in the brain – these help to improve memory and thinking, enhance learning and even boost our mood. And, exercise is proven to help you sleep better and reduce anxiety, which both contribute to a healthier brain.
Aim to fit some activity into each day, such as swimming or yoga, or something more spontaneous like walking or gardening. Try to get a mix of exercise, from aerobic activity to get your heart rate up to stretching and balancing. For inspiration, read our article exercises that can boost the brain.
Eating well is one of the best ways to put your body in good shape to fight off obesity, diabetes and heart disease, which can all strike harder in older age. But did you realise that a healthy diet will also keep your brain in shape.
Eat food rich in nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and flavonoids to maintain your thinking skills. On the flip side, high levels of saturated fat found in butter, palm oil, dairy and meat are linked to thinking skills decreasing in older age.
As a general rule, follow a balanced diet, high in fruit and vegetables and low in saturated fats. For more ideas, read our article on brain food to boost brain health.
Social interaction and engagement
Studies show that people who spend time with others and stay connected to their community experience the slowest rate of memory decline. An engaged social network helps to improve memory, reduce stress, ward off depression, keep you mentally stimulated and give you a support network to rely upon.
This is easier for some people than others, depending on your situation. If you don’t have a rich network of friends and family nearby, consider getting involved in local groups, trying volunteering or starting a new hobby to help you meet people.
Sleep and relaxation
Sleep helps your mind to rest and revive – we need enough sleep to allow our mind to de-stress and maintain good cognitive function. It can also reduce build-up of beta-amyloid plaque in the brain, an abnormal protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Aim for seven to eight hours – research shows that this is optimum amount for better brain health (and better physical health) in older people. Try not to worry if your sleep changes as you get older, though. It’s normal for sleep to become lighter and to wake in the night or early in the morning.
If your sleep is badly disturbed and it’s affecting your day-to-day life, you may be experiencing insomnia. Our insomnia guide takes you through the symptoms and gives advice on improving your quality of sleep.
Brain health FAQs
Activities to challenge the brain, such as crosswords, Sudoku puzzles and special computer games, are all worth trying. Taking up new activities and continuing your hobbies is the best way to keep your brain exercised.
Some research shows it can improve some aspects of memory and thinking, but no studies have shown that brain training actually prevents dementia.
The fatty acid DHA in oily fish has been linked to better brain function. Dark green vegetables such as spinach, kale and broccoli are packed with vitamin E, folic acid, B6, B12 and iron, which have positive effects on brain health. Other foods to feed your brain include eggs, tomatoes, blueberries and wholegrains.
Brain training exercises
Enjoy doing a crossword or Sudoku puzzle? Many people use these ‘brain training’ games to help keep their minds alert in older age and the good news is, it’s probably worth it. While there’s no evidence that brain training will prevent dementia, studies have found that cognitive training can help improve some aspects of memory and thinking, especially from middle-age onwards.
But it’s not just games that help – learning new things is equally as important. That’s because our ‘brain reserve’ – which helps the brain adapt and respond to changes – gets a boost when we learn new skills, try new activities, and embrace new interests. So, stay interested and your brain will benefit!
Read our guide on 12 ways to boost your brain for more unusual ideas to try.
Did you know?
Brain processing speed peaks at around age 18, then declines from then on, while our ability to read other people’s emotions peaks around age 45. Our vocabulary hits its peak around age 70.