How Your Brain Changes as You Get Older
Your brain's volume gradually shrinks as you get older. When this occurs, some of the nerve cells in your brain can shrink or lose connections with other nerve cells. Blood flow within your brain slows somewhat as you age, too. These age-related changes are thought to be behind the differences in cognitive function many people notice as they age. Everyone has lapses in memory from time to time, but significant memory loss is not a normal part of getting older. It's important to talk with your doctor if you or a loved one is experiencing memory loss and other cognitive symptoms that interfere with normal activities and relationships.
How Dementia Can Affect Cognitive Skills
Dementia occurs when nerve cells in the brain stop working, lose connections with other brain cells, and die. The National Institute on Aging defines dementia as having two or more core functions that are impaired, including memory, language skills, visual perception, and the ability to focus and pay attention. Cognitive skills, such as the ability to reason and solve problems, may also be impaired.
There are several different causes of dementia, including:
- Alzheimer's diseaseThe most common cause of dementia, Alzheimer's disease occurs when nerve cells in the brain become damaged or die. The disease affects the parts of the brain that are involved in thinking, remembering, problem-solving, using language, and other cognitive skills.
- Vascular dementiaThe second leading cause of dementia, vascular dementia is a decline in thinking skills caused by cerebrovascular disease, a condition in which blood vessels in the brain are damaged and brain tissue injured, depriving brain cells of vital oxygen and nutrients, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Individuals at highest risk include those who have had a stroke or a transient ischemic attack (TIA, also known as a "ministroke").
- Lewy body dementiaThe third most common form of dementia, Lewy body dementia is caused by abnormal protein deposits that accumulate inside nerve cells, forming clumps called Lewy bodies. As a result, nerve cells no longer function adequately and begin to die. This impacts thinking, memory, behavior, sleep, mood, and movement.
- Frontotemporal dementiaFrontotemporal dementia is the most common form of dementia for people under age 60, and it’s caused by degeneration of the frontal and/or temporal lobes of the brain. FTD leads to a gradual, progressive decline in behavior, language, or movement, with memory usually relatively preserved, according to The Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration.
- Other types of dementiaHuman immunodeficiency virus(HIV) infection, Huntington's disease, head trauma, and other health conditions can affect nerve cells in the brain, leading to symptoms of dementia.
7 Tips for Staying Mentally Sharp as a Senior
Promising research indicates that taking the following steps can help keep your mind sharp as you age:
- Control cholesterol problems and high blood pressure.These conditions can increase your risk for heart disease and stroke, which are thought to contribute to the development of certain types of dementia. Cardiovascular health — having healthy blood sugar, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure, along with being physically active, eating a nutritious diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and not smoking — was associated with better cognitive function in a study published in PLoS One.
- Don't smoke or drink excessively.Because these are both seen as putting you at increased risk for dementia, kick the habit if you smoke and, if you drink, do so only in moderation.
- Exercise regularly.Regular physical activity is thought to help maintain blood flow to the brain and reduce your risk for conditions such as high blood pressure that are associated with the development of dementia. Consistent vigorous exercise helps lower the risk for dementia, according to a study published in the Annals of Medicine in 2015.
- Eat a healthy diet.Researchers have found strong evidence that vitamin E, B vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids could help prevent dementia, along with avoiding saturated fat, according to an article published in 2016 in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Specifically, researchers have found evidence that green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, berries, and seafood are neuroprotective. Studies have also found the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet to have protective benefits against dementia. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes vegetables, healthy fats like olive oil, and omega-3 fatty acids from fish, and the DASH diet focuses on fruits and veggies, fat-free or low-fat dairy, whole grains, and lean meats, along with cutting back on processed foods and limiting red meat. A new diet called MIND (Mediterranean–DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) incorporates many elements of the Mediterranean diet and DASH but with modifications that reflect current evidence for brain neuroprotection, according to the article in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
- Get a good education. People with more years of formal education are at lower risk for Alzheimer’s and other dementias than those with fewer years of formal education, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Some researchers believe that having more years of education builds “cognitive reserve,” which is the brain’s ability to use connections between neurons (nerve cells) to enable you to continue to carry out cognitive tasks despite damaging brain changes.
- Stimulate your brain.Having a mentally stimulating job and engaging in other mentally stimulating activities may also help build cognitive reserve, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. You can also keep your mind active by learning new skills. A 2017 study published in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry suggests that acquiring skills in later life, including those related to adopting new technologies, may have the potential to reduce or delay cognitive changes associated with aging. In the study, older adults took a weekly, two-hour class in which they learned how to use a tablet computer. After the 10-week training, engagement in this new, mentally challenging activity was associated with improved processing speed.
- Socialize more. Making new friends or spending time with the ones you have might be good for your brain. A 2018 study published in Scientific Reportsthat looked at older adults in China found that participants with consistently high or increased social engagement had a lower risk of dementia than those with consistently low social engagement.