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Find out why the health of your brain declines with old age and how you can boost brain health

An active brain that functions well is essential if you are to enjoy your retirement. While science does not yet fully understand all the reasons why the functioning of your brain declines in old age, it does offer plenty of suggestions as to how you can boost brain health as you become older.

Cognitive skills are the core skills your brain uses to think, read, learn, remember, reason, and pay attention.

Your core skills take incoming information, process it and move it into the bank of knowledge you use to do everything you do every day.

Cognitive health refers to how good your cognitive skills are, ie how good you are at thinking, reading, learning, remembering, reasoning and paying attention.

Your cognitive health, however, is just one aspect of the overall health of your brain.

Brain health refers to how well your brain functions overall, in particular:

  • cognitive health … how well you think, read, learn, remember, reason, and pay attention
  • motor function … how well you can control your movements and your balance
  • tactile function … how well you can feel and respond to physical sensations, such as pain, temperature and pressure
  • emotional function … how well you interpret and respond to pleasant and pleasant emotions

Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning (thinking, remembering, and reasoning) and behavioural abilities to the extent that it interferes with your daily life and activities.

Symptoms of dementia include problems with speaking, perceiving, or paying attention. Some people undergo personality changes. Alzheimer’s disease is one form of dementia. There are several other.

Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks.

In most people with the disease, symptoms first appear in their mid-60s. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia among older adults.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a condition in which you have more memory or thinking problems than other people your own age but can still do your normal daily activities.

If you have MCI you are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than your peers who don’t have MCI.

Physical health problems and your brain

Many physical health problems affect the brain and pose risks to the health of your brain. As examples:

  • Heart disease and high blood pressure can lead to stroke, as well as changes in blood vessels in your brain that can lead to dementia.
  • Diabetes damages blood vessels throughout your body, including your brain. It also increases your risk for strokes and heart attacks, and increases your risk of dementias such as Alzheimer’s.
  • All dementias cause harmful proteins to build-up in your brain as well as other changes that lead to memory loss and other thinking problems.
  • Strokes can damage blood vessels in your brain and increase your risk of vascular dementia.
  • Depression can give rise to confusion or problems paying attention and has been linked to dementia.
  • Delirium, an acute state of confusion, is associated with subsequent cognitive decline.

As you see, these health problems affect your brain as well as your body. Getting them sorted may prevent or delay cognitive decline, thinking problems, MCI and dementia.

How to protect the health of your brain

The health of your brain can be affected by a range of issues.

Some but not all of these issues can be avoided.

You can preserve or enhance the health of your brain by:

  • eating nutritious food … low in sugar, fat and salt, and high in fibre and so on … see below and see here
  • exercising regularly … aerobic exercises are best … see below and see here
  • keeping your mind active … through reading, having discussions, doing crosswords, studying etc … see below and see here
  • managing chronic diseases … such as diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol levels and depression
  • managing your stress … long-term stress can, over time, change your brain, affect your memory and increase the risk of dementia
  • getting enough sleep … a minimum of 7 hours a night, preferably 8 hours or more
  • socialising as much as possible … this will help you live longer by giving you a sense of purpose

Eating nutritious food to boost brain health

In general, a nutritious and healthy diet consists of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, and lean meat, and is one that avoids processed foods and full fat dairy products as far as possible.

Thus you should eat a plant focused diet that is low in sugar, fat and salt and high in fibre. Drink plenty of water and try to control portion sizes.

You can read about an effective diet for all medical conditions at http://beating-diabetes.com/. Such a diet can reduce the risk of many chronic diseases such as heart disease and can help you control other chronic diseases, such as diabetes, and prevent them getting worse.

Researchers are currently examining whether a healthy diet can help preserve cognitive function or reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

There is some evidence that people who eat a Mediterranean diet have a lower risk of developing dementia.

A Mediterranean diet is based on:

  • Plant-based meals, with only small amounts of lean red and white meats
  • Servings of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, and legumes
  • Foods that naturally contain high amounts of fibre
  • Plenty of fish and other seafood
  • Avoiding desserts, sweets, eggs and butter
  • Olive oil, a healthy, monounsaturated fat, as the main source of fat for preparing food. 
  • Food that is prepared and seasoned simply, without sauces and gravies

Scientists don’t really know why the Mediterranean and similar diets help the brain. Their ability to improve cardiovascular health might be what reduces the risk of dementia.

In comparison, the typical high-sugar, high-fat, high-salt Western diet increases the risk of cardiovascular disease which in turn could be contributing to faster brain aging.

Researchers are also currently testing another diet, MIND, a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets.

Observational studies of more than 900 dementia-free older adults who follow the MIND diet closely indicate that they experience a slower rate of cognitive decline and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Exercising regularly to boost brain health

Staying physically active has many benefits:

  • You’ll keep and even improve the strength you had when you retired.
  • You’ll have more energy
  • You’ll improve your balance
  • You’ll prevent, delay or control chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and so on
  • You’ll reduce depression and feel less down

Studies link ongoing physical activity with cognition and other benefits for the brain.

In one of these studies, it was found that exercise stimulated the human brain’s ability to maintain old network connections and make new ones that are vital to cognitive health.

Other studies have shown that exercise increases the size of the area in the brain that is important to memory and learning, resulting in better spatial memory.

Some recent research suggests that aerobic exercise (eg, walking briskly) may be more beneficial to cognitive health than non-aerobic stretching and toning exercises.

Another study found that the more time you spend exercising at moderate levels of physical activity, ie doing aerobic exercises, the greater the increase in how quickly the brain turns glucose into fuel.

This may reduce the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. But a strong link between physical activity and the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease has not been discovered yet.

To find out more about exercise and brain health, click here

Keeping your mind active to boost brain health

Being intellectually engaged may boost brain health.

People who engage in personally meaningful activities, such as hobbies or charity work, say they feel happier and healthier.

Learning new skills may improve your thinking ability.

For example, a study published in 2014 found that older adults who learned cognitively demanding skills such as quilting or digital photography had more memory improvement than those who only socialized or undertook less cognitively demanding activities.

Some research on participating in creative activities such as music, theatre, dance, and creative writing has shown promise for improving the quality of life and well-being in older adults … from better memory and self-esteem to reduced stress and increased social interaction.

However, a recent, comprehensive report reviewing the design and findings of these and other studies did not find strong evidence that these creative activities have a lasting beneficial effect on cognition.

Additional research is needed in order to be able to say definitively whether these activities may help maintain healthy cognition.

Lots of other activities can keep your mind active … reading books and magazines … playing games … learning a new subject or teaching a class … learning a new skill … working … doing charity work etc.  

These types of mentally stimulating activities have not been proven to prevent serious cognitive decline, even if they are enjoyable.

A few observational studies, however, suggest that some informal mentally stimulating activities, such as reading or playing games, may lower the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.

Some scientists argue that such activities may protect the brain by establishing a cognitive reserve, ie they may help the brain become more adaptable in some mental functions so it can compensate for age-related changes in the brain.

Some types of cognitive training conducted in a research setting also seem to have benefits.

In the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) trial, published in 2013, healthy adults 65+ participated in 10 sessions of training of their memory, reasoning or processing-speed.

The sessions improved the mental skills of the participant in the area in which they were trained. Later evidence suggested that these benefits persisted for two years.

Computer and online games … there is little evidence to back up claims that playing certain computer games or online games can improve your memory and other types of thinking.

Evidence that is currently available is insufficient to suggest that commercial computer-based brain training apps have the same positive impact on cognitive abilities as the ACTIVE trial.

For more information, explore other Retirement is for Enjoyment articles.

Managing chronic diseases to boost brain health

Managing any chronic disease such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high levels of cholesterol, obesity, heart disease and many others is now considered by medical researchers to be vital in preserving and boosting your brain health during retirement.

Hypertension … preventing or controlling high blood pressure is critical for avoiding negative effects on the functioning of your brain.

Decades of studies have shown that high blood pressure in mid-life (mid-30s to early 60s) increases the risk of cognitive decline during retirement.

In addition, if high blood pressure is not treated it can lead to stroke and problems with your heart, eyes, brain, and kidneys.

The SPRINT-MIND study, a nationwide clinical trial in the USA, found that intensive lowering of blood pressure below the standard target of 140/90mmHg reduces the risk for mild cognitive impairment (MCI) which is a risk factor for dementia.

Hypertension is a sneaky silent killer. Unless it is very high, you don’t feel sick or even a bit weird. The only way to discover it is to have your blood pressure checked regularly.

To control or lower high blood pressure, your doctor may prescribe certain medications, as well as suggesting changes to your lifestyle. To protect your brain and your heart, follow his advice.

In addition, make sure you eat a low-salt diet, as salt increases blood pressure.

Diabetes … is another sneaky, silent killer. It doesn’t make you feel ill, though there are symptoms you should be aware of, such as having to get up during the night several times to urinate.

When you have diabetes, the glucose released by your digestive system into your bloodstream cannot enter the muscles cells where it is to provide energy. As a result the glucose circulates aimlessly in your blood stream where it causes significant damage to various vital organs.

If not treated, diabetes will cause cardio-vascular diseases, kidney disease, diabetic neuropathy and a score of other highly distressing diseases that will cut your retirement short.

Testing for diabetes is easy … just a finger prick so the doctor can get a drop of blood for testing. No big deal at all. Once you are over 65, you should be tested regularly.

Though medications to control blood glucose levels are usually advised when you show high blood glucose, they are not much good if you don’t change you diet.

And if you change your diet to a plant focussed diet that is low in sugar, low in fat, low in salt and high in fibre, you will control your diabetes just as well without the medications.

For full details of how your digestive-glucose-insulin resistance system works you could read my book Beating Diabetes, or read a treasure trove of free articles at http://beating-diabetes.com/.

Cholesterol and obesity … are two chronic diseases that you usually have if you already have diabetes or high blood pressure or both.

Cholesterol … is a waxy substance in your blood that your body needs to build healthy cells. However, high levels of cholesterol in your blood can increase your risk of heart disease.

When your cholesterol level is high, fatty deposits develop in your blood vessels. These grow in size over time, reducing the flow of blood through your arteries, which makes your heart pump harder to keep it flowing fast enough. This can strain your heart.

These deposits can break suddenly and form a clot that goes to your heart or brain and causes a heart attack or stroke.

High cholesterol levels are usually the result of an unhealthy lifestyle, which make it preventable and treatable. How to do so is discussed in my book Beating Diabetes.

Obesity … is a chronic disease in which you are so overweight that you weight is having serious adverse effects on your vital organs, ie, the organs that are necessary to keep your body alive and functioning.

Excessive amounts of body fat increase your risk of other chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and certain cancers.

If you have a hanging belly, your vital organs such as your kidneys, liver etc are encased in fat which reduces the ability of these organs to function. Chronic obesity is dangerous.

The good news is that you can become slim and sleek and avoid the complications of obesity if you follow the plant-focused diet espoused in Beating Diabetes. This diet will help you control your diabetes, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.

Heart disease … refers to any condition affecting your heart. There are many types.

Heart disease only affects your heart, unlike cardiovascular disease which refers to problems with your entire circulatory system.

Heart disease is caused by atherosclerosis, a build-up of fatty deposits (plaques) in the walls of the coronary arteries over many years. As a result there is less space for blood to flow normally.

Should a plaque suddenly rupture, the flow of blood to your heart would be reduced or even blocked, causing angina (chest pain) or a heart attack. Heart disease is a very serious chronic illness.

There are many signs of heart disease. These include:

chest pain, pressure, or discomfortfeeling lightheaded, dizzy or confused
pain, numbness, or tingling in the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw or backchest pain during physical activity that gets better when you rest
shortness of breath when active, at rest, or while lying flatswelling of the ankles, feet, legs, stomach or neck
reduced ability to be physically activeproblems doing your usual daily activities
headaches, cold sweats, nausea or vomitingtiredness or chronic fatigues

If you have any of these signs, see your doctor asap.

To prevent heart disease or reduce your risk of getting it, you need to:

  • exercise to get fit
  • stop smoking which damages the walls of your arteries
  • eat a healthy diet … low in sugar, fats and salt, and high in fibre, just like the Beating Diabetes diet
  • keep your weight under control
  • keep your diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol under control
  • limit your intake of alcohol to just one or two drinks a day
  • manage your stress levels

Managing your stress to boost brain health

Stress is a natural part of our lives.

Short-term stress can focus our thoughts and motivate us to take action.

Long-term stress, however, can damage our physical and mental systems.

Over time, chronic stress can change the brain, affect memory, and increase the risk for various dementias including Alzheimer’s disease.

To build up your ability to bounce back from stressful situations, you should:

  • Exercise regularly. Going for a brisk walk along an interesting pathway or practicing Chinese martial arts, such as tai chi, can restore a sense of well-being.
  • Keep a journal. Putting thoughts on paper can help you let go of an issue or see a new solution.
  • Use Relaxation techniques. Breathing exercises can help you relax, as can mindfulness, which involves focusing awareness on the present moment without judgment. Relaxation techniques can also help lower blood pressure, lessen muscle tension, and reduce stress.
  • Stay positive. Releasing grudges or other things beyond your control, practicing gratitude, or pausing to enjoy the simple things of life, like the beauty of nature, can release stress.

Getting enough sleep to boost brain health

A lot is going on inside your brain when you are zonked out.

All this activity is vital to keeping both your body and your brain in good working order.

During sleep:

  • your neurons, which have been working all day, get the chance to repair themselves and their links with other neurons. This helps your brain to work faster and more accurately when you wake up.
  • your brain organises new information it acquires during the day so you can make better sense of it.
  • your brain works to solidify memories formed during the day. It links new memories to old ones, helping you make connections between various pieces of information to come up with new ideas.
  • the consolidation of memories and the formation of connections between new ideas and old ones leads to more creative thinking.
  • your brain clears out harmful toxins. When your brain is consolidating memories and forming new connections, the space between brain cells expands so it can get rid of the harmful molecules associated with neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia that build up during the day.
  • your brain regulates the hormones that determine your appetite. Too little sleep causes your brain to pump out less leptin, the hormone that makes you feel full, and more ghrelin, the hormone that causes you to feel hungry. Thus, too little sleep can you get fat!
  • your brain keeps you looking good, by releasing the growth hormone that your body uses to grow new cells and repair damaged tissue.

You need to get at least 7 and up to 9 hours sleep every night if you are to give your brain the time it needs to undertake all this activity.

Anything within that range is fine. If you are only sleeping 7 hours but feel brain fuzzy during the day, tack on some more sleep to see if that improves things. To do so, you may need to go to sleep earlier.

If you have trouble falling asleep it could be because you’re [a] stressed out, [b] exposed to too much energising stimuli at bedtime, or [c] just uncomfortable.

If this is so, you need to [a] follow a calming routine before bedtime (no computer work!), [b] make you bedroom dark and more comfortable, and/or [c] get a good mattress.

Socialise to boost brain health

Connecting with other people in your community through social activities can keep your brain active and help you feel less isolated.

Despite a lack of solid evidence, some scientists are of the opinion that participating in social activities may lower the risk for some health problems and improve well-being.

People who engage in personally meaningful and productive activities with others tend to live longer, enjoy a sense of purpose and are usually in a good mood.

Studies show that these activities seem to help them maintain a sense of well-being. Such activities may also improve their cognitive function.

So, you should visit your friends and family. Do charitable work or join a local society for a hobby you enjoy. Form a walking group or other exercise group with your peers.

A lot of societies and groups now meet on online, which gives you a way to connect with others who share your interests or to get support without leaving the house.

Researchers are not sure whether socialising can prevent or delay age-related cognitive decline. Some socialising, however, has been associated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.

During this age of pandemics, you may be wary of in-person socialising. If so, consider video calling with friends or family, joining online classes or discussion groups. Be happy !!

Other things you can do to boost brain health

There are many other things you can do to take care of your brain health. Here are a few that will help you prolong and enjoy your retirement:

  • Get regular medical check-ups … covering physical and mental issues
  • Ask your doctor whether the medicines you are prescribed regularly can affect your memory, sleep, and brain function
  • Reduce your risk of physical injuries to your brain … due to falls or other accidents
  • Limit your intake of alcohol, especially as alcohol can interfere with many medicines
  • Quit smoking, if you still do, and don’t use any other nicotine products

With that said, make sure you enjoy your retirement!

I hope you found this article informative. I you have any queries, comments or suggestions, please contact me using the form below:

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