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Keeping your brain healthy as you age

Last Updated at September 22nd 2021
It’s a common misconception that as you reach old age, you start to lose your memory or your cognitive ability. While that can be the case for people who develop dementia, in most cases, your mental abilities should stay the same. However, not exercising the most important muscle in your body - the brain - may lead to reduced mental capacity.
Happy older man playing chess with his grandson.
Socialisation and mental stimulation can help to keep your brain healthy as you age. [Source: Shutterstock]

Key points:

  • Body health and exercise can have a positive impact on your brain health

  • Socialisation encourages healthy brain stimulation and activity

  • A healthy brain can reduce your risk of dementia or slow the progression of dementia

Researchers have found that many of the age-related changes to your brain can be a result of your lifestyle.

If you aren’t exercising your brain muscles, then there is a possibility you might lose or reduce cognitive function.

Think of your brain as like any other muscle in your body, you need to keep it fit, healthy, running and challenged.

Changes that occur to your brain as you age

Common changes in your brain during the ageing process can include:

  • Fat deposits building up inside your brain cells, this can limit brain function

  • Your brain cells may not be replaced as quickly compared to when you were younger

  • The loss of brain cells can result in a smaller brain

  • Brain cells may process and pass along information more slowly

  • Decreases in healthy brain chemicals, like dopamine or serotonin

Signs of these changes could include struggling to pick up a new skill, problems with doing multiple tasks at the same time, a higher likelihood of mental health problems, or being slow to remember appointments and names.

While this may not sound good, your brain can adapt to these changes and still function well. Keeping the brain fit and well oiled can help you with the above problems.

It’s important to continually exercise your brain because your body still has the ability to create new connections within the brain.

Running for brain health

Keeping your body physically healthy is a key factor when it comes to your brain, mental health, and wellbeing.

Illnesses or diseases that can affect your brain's function generally can be caused by poor diet choices or lack of exercise. 

Being physically active can be really beneficial in improving your general health while also positively impacting your brain health.

For instance, just 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day can provide enough oxygen to your brain to function well.

Additionally, regular exercise can produce huge benefits to your reasoning skills, memory, and overall brain health.

Another important thing to keep in mind is having a healthy diet with lots of nutrients, proteins and minerals. Your body and brain need to have the right fuel to continue functioning well.

Socialising

Did you know that having a natter with your neighbour can also be a great mental exercise to your brain?

Our brains are incredibly active during conversations with other people, whether it be formulating the right responses, gauging the emotions of the person we are talking to, or making connections and links between conversations.

Our brains are running a marathon while talking to people!

Humans are always described as social creatures, our brains thrive for social interaction and engagement, so seeking out that mental stimulation can be really important for our brain health.

Socialisation can also stave off or improve mental health issues, which is vital to happy, healthy brains.

Being social can be good for your physical health as well, as a lot of socialisation can be included when you participate in activities like walking, sport or other physical exercises.

“Neurobics”

Neurobics is science-backed brain exercises. It encourages mental stimulation to improve memory and minimise cognitive decline.

Researchers from Stanford University found that mental exercises can make people less likely to develop memory loss by 30 to 50 percent.

So while people may think sudoku or crosswords are an “old people” activity, they are definitely an ideal way to keep mentally healthy.

Neurobics exercises can be as easy as turning a simple task on its head and making the activity "disruptive", for example by making a cuppa or doing a painting class without using your dominant hand.

Learning new things or skills is also considered a neurobic activity, as your brain is processing how to keep the new information and how to use it.

Video games have been found to be very beneficial to people with dementia or older residents and gaming is becoming an activity used in aged care facilities around Australia.

There have been multiple studies finding that people with dementia were more responsive and had better working memory immediately after gameplay. 

Any form of mental engagement, whether through physical exercise, new learning and education, or cognitive training, can be beneficial to the brain.

The other great thing about brain training is the positive mental health effects it can have. Finding interesting and fun ways to engage your brain can result in a happy and enjoyable life as you age.

Preventions for dementia

You may think there's not a lot of point in brain training if you've been diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease. However, recent research shows connections between lifestyle and health factors and the development of dementia.

Since dementia can affect a lot of your brain, including its cognitive function and behaviours, it is a good idea to put in as many preventive measures as possible to reduce the impact or development of the disease.

Encouraging healthy brain stimulation through a range of activities have shown to have an improvement on cognitive function and memory retention.

Anything that keeps your brain healthy, such as exercise, socialisation, a good diet, managing your stress, and having good mental stimulation, puts you in a better position to either stave off dementia or slow the progression of the disease.

How do you like to keep your brain active, stimulated and thinking? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

Myths about getting old and ageing
The importance of elderly nutrition
Mental benefits of puzzles and brain games for older people
The importance of sleep for the elderly

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