When you think about health, you’re probably thinking about your body from the neck down. Eating well and regular exercise keep bones strong, maintain muscle mass, and reduce the risk of illness as you get older.
But what about improving your brain healthy as you age?
Like the rest of our bodies, our brain goes through changes when we get older, and there are a few different ways this can happen.
Normal Cognitive Aging: Certain cognitive abilities (like memory and processing speed) decline in later decades. This is considered a normal part of aging.
Dementia: Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. It causes brain cell degeneration and progressive decline in memory and other mental function.
Stroke: Caused when an arterial blockage cuts off blood supply to the brain. Many people who survive a stroke sustain some cognitive impairment.
There are unavoidable genetic components to the way our brains age. But there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of cognitive decline and medical conditions that affect the brain. Whether you’re already in your senior years or far from them, try these 6 strategies for keeping your brain healthy as you age.
1. Quit Smoking
You know that cigarettes harm for your lungs, but they also wreak havoc on your cardiovascular system. Narrowed blood vessels and plaque buildup in arteries mean that smokers are about twice as likely to have a stroke. A history of smoking also increases the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
2. Control Blood Pressure & Cholesterol
High blood pressure and cholesterol are linked to increased risks of both stroke and Alzheimer’s. Because they usually come with no symptoms, regular visits to your doctor are the first step in determining if you have either condition. Once you’re diagnosed, follow the recommended lifestyle changes and medication regimens to reduce your risk of brain disease later in life.
Exercise is a critical component of health, especially as we age. It’s best to make physical activity a priority throughout your life, but it’s also never too late to start.
- Physical activity helps reduce cognitive decline and dementia, even when it’s not started until later in life.
- Exercise is also a key factor in managing obesity, blood pressure, and cholesterol, all of which can contribute to Alzheimer’s and stroke.
4. Protect your Brain
Traumatic brain injury (TBI) occurs when an outside physical force damages the brain, and concussions are the most common type. Repeated mild TBI or even single instances of moderate or severe TBI can increase the risk of developing dementia. You can reduce your chances of traumatic brain injury by:
- Wearing a seatbelt and keeping your vehicle in good condition.
- Wearing a helmet while cycling, riding a motorcycle, or during other high speed activities.
- Minimizing risks of falling. For people with balance issues this may mean using a walker, installing hand rails, or placing non-slip mats in tubs and showers.
- Regulating drug and alcohol use. People who are impaired are much more likely to have accidents or falls.
5. Social Activity
Physical limitations and major life changes can cause older people to become socially isolated. But those who maintain social connections show fewer declines in cognitive abilities. It’s hard to say if social activity actually helps keep your brain healthy or if elders experiencing cognitive decline are more likely to be isolated. But with the tendency of socialization to include physical activity and valuable personal contact, there are virtually no downsides to keeping social as you age.
- Join a league or club. Whether it’s bridge, bowling, or a walking group, clubs and leagues offer up a great way to connect with like-minded people.
- Volunteer. Lending your services to a non-profit can provide a sense of purpose and active social interaction after retirement.
- Use social media. Online interaction doesn’t replace in-person contact, but social media can help you connect with old friends and locate clubs in your area.
Eating a healthy diet is one of the pillars of disease prevention and longevity. While we mostly associate food choice with our waistlines, there’s a growing body of research on how nutrients affect brain function.
- A combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets has been proposed to protect cognitive health. The MIND diet includes an emphasis on whole grains, leafy greens, nuts, beans, berries, poultry/fish and olive oil.
- Eating folate-rich foods like beans, dark leafy greens, and fortified grains and cereals could help keep your brain healthy as you age. Folate deficiencies have been associated with cognitive impairment and increased risk of dementia.
- You’re never too old for fruits and vegetables. Flavonoids found in foods like onions, strawberries, kale, and citrus fruit may help support cognitive function.
- Several studies show that antioxidants like alpha lipoic acid, vitamin E, and curcumin appear to improve memory and cognitive function.
Some cognitive decline is a normal part of aging, and you can’t completely eliminate the genetic risk of having a stroke or developing Alzheimer’s disease. But by making changes in your lifestyle habits now, you’ll be setting up your brain, and the rest of your body, for happier and healthier senior years.
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DISCLAIMER: The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.