The brain, like every other part of your body, undergoes changes with age – sometimes mild, and sometimes more drastic. As you get older, you may notice declines in memory, thinking and mental function that can be concerning. These are signs that your brain may not be as healthy as you would like.
Brain health refers to how well your brain functions in several ways – including cognitive health (your ability to think, learn and remember), motor function (how well you move), and emotional function (how you respond to and interpret emotions). The health of your brain changes over time, and can be dramatically impacted by substance abuse, diseases, injuries, strokes, mood disorders like depression or simply by ageing.
But how do you know if your brain is really healthy or not? Here are some of the signs that your brain health may be suffering:
- Forgetfulness – you might notice that you’re starting to forget things more and more often
- Missing appointments or social events
- Lack of focus and struggling to remain on task
- Poor decision-making or poor judgement – making poor decisions that may cause negative consequences, failing to think through the consequences or making rushed decisions when that’s not your usual pattern
- Sleeping difficulties, such as not being able to go to sleep easily, waking often during the night or crashing in the middle of the day
- Difficulty managing your stress levels, and getting frustrated more easily
- Lowered motivation – struggling to muster up the motivation or energy to do things, and a lack of interest in things you were previously interested in
- Losing your train of thought, being unable to keep up with the plot of a movie or book, or having trouble following a conversation
- Finding it hard to follow instructions or finish a task
- Having trouble finding your way to or around places that you’ve been to before or know well
- Being unable to connect with people as easily as you usually have in the past
- Excessive sensitivity
- Finding it harder to think
You may notice some of these changes yourself – or your friends and family may notice these changes in you as well. Displaying some or many of these signs is an indication that you need to take better care of your brain.
Of course, many of the factors that impact your brain health can’t be changed (such as diseases, strokes or injuries), but there are certain things you can do to help ensure better health for your brain. It’s essential to nurture your brain at any age, and the earlier you can implement healthy brain habits into your life, the better. Here are some effective and science-backed ways to support your brain health.
Exercise – love it or hate it, it’s vital for good health and longevity. Lack of adequate physical activity can increase your risk of diseases such as heart diseases, stroke, diabetes and depression – which can all negatively impact your brain health. You can improve your cognitive health by staying active, as doing so will lower your risk of strokes, high blood pressure and depression. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise on most days of the week – you can access the physical activity and exercise guidelines for Australians here.
Eat foods that support good brain health
A poor diet can lead to a wide range of health problems (including diabetes and heart disease) that can also harm your brain. A healthy, well-balanced diet, however, can provide the nutrients you need to foster a healthy brain, help optimise your cognitive function and promote mental wellbeing. Foods such as leafy greens, fatty fish, dark chocolate, wholegrains and nuts can help keep your brain healthy, whereas high-fat, high-salt and high-sugar foods will have the opposite effect and can harm the brain.
Alcohol’s short-term effects on the brain are well-known, with overconsumption leading to memory loss, drowsiness, dizziness and impaired communication between your brain cells. What’s less well-known is the long-term effects of alcohol on your brain, which can lead to negative changes to your memory, coordination, balance and emotions. And as you age, you may become more sensitive, and more prone to, the effects of alcohol.
To help reverse or prevent these changes, limit your consumption of alcohol or stay away from it completely. If you really don’t think you can do that, try having a set number of “dry” days a week, and only drinking alcohol on particular days. And follow the health guidelines for alcohol consumption – you can find them here.
Smoking doesn’t just affect your body, it also has an effect on your brain, by increasing your risk of stroke, heart attack and lung disease. There’s really no upside to smoking, so if you’re serious about improving your brain health, you also need to get serious about cutting down or quitting smoking altogether.
Get plenty of sleep
Sleep is super important for your brain, which needs time to rest, recharge, repair its cells and update your memories. In fact, sleep is probably one of the most important – if not THE most important – things you can do to ensure good brain health. Failing to get enough sleep on a regular basis, sleeping poorly or experiencing sleep disorders can cause problems with concentration, memory and other cognitive functions.
Aim to get 7 – 9 hours of sleep most nights, and to fall asleep and wake up around the same time every day.
Click here to discover the steps to getting a better night’s sleep as you age.
Don’t ignore the power of connection
Social connections with others are far more important to good brain health than you might think, and have been shown to contribute significantly to a well-functioning and healthy brain. Studies have repeatedly shown that loneliness and social isolation are bad for brain health, leading to poorer cognitive function and a higher risk of dementia. Don’t neglect your friendships and relationships, and continue to make time for social activity on a regular basis. A life filled with strong, supportive and fulfilling social connections will definitely contribute to a healthy brain.
Challenge your brain regularly
We all know we should be doing puzzles to benefit our brain, and puzzles and games certainly do help improve our memory, reasoning and attention. But don’t stop there – try learning a new language, or a new subject that interests you, or try some memory training. There are plenty of resources online to help you. Challenging your brain is very beneficial for older adults, and doing so regularly will encourage a healthy and nimble brain.
Manage your medications
Many medications have side effects that can impact your brain health, and can be responsible for memory loss, confusion, delusions and even hallucinations. As well, medications in combination with other medications, alcohol, dietary supplements and even some foods can have an adverse negative affect on your brain.
If you’re experiencing cognitive problems that you think may be caused by medications, talk to your doctor to find out what you can do about it. There may be other medications you can take that will work better for you, or you might be able to treat your problem with another strategy. Don’t just stop taking the medication, however, until you have talked to your doctor.
Mindfulness practices such as meditation can bring incredible benefits to the brain, with studies finding an increase in grey matter concentration in participant’s brains after a course of meditation. And even more incredibly, experts even believe that you can think yourself younger – that your body will actually work better if you think you’re younger. It sounds like nonsense, but studies have found that people who feel younger than their actual age have more grey matter in their brains – an astounding finding! It’s at least worth giving it a try.
So, start taking some steps now to help keep your brain in tip-top shape and reduce your risk of cognitive decline. It really is never too late to start.