Why does ageing cause brain function decline?
Cognitive impairment among older people can have negative welfare consequences and lead to a reduced quality of life – even if the impairment is not severely debilitating.
Age is a big risk factor for certain brain diseases which negatively affect brain function and structure, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Other diseases commonly related to getting older, such as heart disease and diabetes, also often lead to compromised cognitive ability. As well, increased use of medications, along with other factors such as sleep deprivation, worsening hearing and vision, and depression can also interfere with brain function and cognitive ability.
How your brain function changes with age
Your brain is continuously changing and developing throughout your entire life. While it’s certainly true that many cognitive functions weaken with age, some actually improve.
The effects of ageing on the brain:
- Some brain areas shrink in size (such as the hippocampus)
- The protective sheath surrounding nerve fibres becomes worn, thus slowing the speed of communication between neurons
- Receptors on the surface of neurons may not function as well as they previously did, leading to breakdowns in communication between neurons
All of these changes can directly impact your ability to recall information and to encode new information into your memory. As you get older, you might start to notice memory slips that occur more often. You might forget where you put things, forget what you did yesterday, have to search for the right word to use, tell the same story over and over again, or need to focus more on conversations in noisy environments. While many of these are normal cognitive changes related to ageing, some can be symptoms of a more serious disease developing.
What are the risk factors for cognitive decline?
- Being overweight or obese
- Having high blood pressure
- Having Type 2 diabetes
- Participating in little or no physical exercise
- Participating in little or no mental activity
Having one or more of these modifiable risk factors can put you at a far greater risk of experiencing brain function decline as you age.
What can you do about it?
Clearly, all this is not ideal, but what can really be done about it? It’s not all down to genetics however – the key in assessing these risk factors is that they are modifiable. You don’t just have to accept these as just a normal part of ageing – because they’re not. At any age or stage of life, there’s a lot you can do to prevent, reduce or eliminate the risk factors for cognitive decline. Research suggests that a combination of physical activity, mental and social engagement and good nutrition will be extremely beneficial in maintaining brain health, even as you age. Here are some key factors that will help prevent brain function decline in older adults.
Physical exercise has an overwhelming and significant positive impact on your brain. Any type of activity that raises your heart rate and makes you sweat may be the closest thing to a wonder drug that we can get.
Exercise helps to:
- Improve your mood
- Improve your memory
- Protect your brain from age-related cognitive decline
- Facilitate oxygen and growth factors in the brain
- Modulate the brain’s immune responses
- Reduce your blood pressure and cholesterol levels
- Reduce your waistline
- Reduce the chance for depression
If it’s good for your heart, it’s good for your brain! Exercise needs to be a part of every older adult’s life, as the benefits for both the body and brain are immense. National guidelines recommend that all adults get at least 150 minutes of physical activity a week.
Experts now believe that social connection and engagement may be the single most powerful factor influencing cognitive performance in old age. Building your social support network will help to:
- Reduce stress
- Challenge your brain
- Help you feel less isolated
- Reduce depression
Remaining active and engaged in your twilight years will not only improve your cognitive function, but will also significantly enhance your quality of life.
Click here to read more about how seniors can extend their lives by staying connected.
Trying new activities is a great way to stimulate your brain to make new connections and strengthen current connections. Any activity that is complicated enough to involve your mind will have benefit, and can help improve your memory, make your brain become more adaptable, and compensate for age-related brain changes. From puzzles, games, reading, or learning something new, there are many ways you can stimulate your brain – and all will have a positive effect (as long as they don’t add additional stress to your life, of course).
Maintaining good health
A healthy diet will give your brain the best chance of staying healthy and being able to function optimally. Plan your meals around vegetables and then fill them in with other foods, such as whole grains, lean meats, fish and poultry, and low-fat or non-fat dairy products. Stay away from highly processed foods, including fats, sugar and salt, and try to eat your food in as natural a state as possible. Try and get 7 – 8 hours of sleep each night, avoid smoking and limit consumption of alcohol too.
Routine medical care
Having regular medical check-ups can help catch the signs of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia early, thus enabling you to manage the disease better. Plus, physical diseases of your body will also impact on your brain’s ability to function well.
Making a conscious effort to engage in physically and mentally stimulating activities, as well as staying socially connected and looking after your health, can help to counteract the negative effects of ageing on the brain – and that’s got to be well worth doing.