Brain Aging 101: Here is what you need to know.
- December 21, 2023
- Whole Health
- 4 minute read
- Karina Bailey, FNP-C
Does it take a little more time to find the word you're looking for, or to remember someone's name? Has multitasking become a challenge? If so, you're not alone — these are common brain changes for older adults, and they may be nothing to worry about.
But how do you know what's normal and what's not? And how can you boost brain health as you get older? Keep reading to find out.
The Aging Brain: What's Normal, What's Not
While the following issues can be irksome, they're associated with normal aging:
- Recalling names and numbers: Strategic memory starts to decline at age 20, making this type of recall more challenging.
- Remembering appointments: Your brain may keep this information locked away until it's triggered by a cue like a reminder phone call or calendar notification.
- Multitasking: As you age, it can be difficult to do more than one thing at a time.
- Learning something new: Senior brain aging means it may take longer to commit new information to memory.
These issues, on the other hand, are not part of the normal aging process:
- Asking the same questions repeatedly
- Getting lost in places you know well
- Having trouble following recipes or directions
- Becoming more confused about time, people and places
- Eating poorly, not bathing or behaving unsafely
If you're experiencing any of the latter issues, talk to your ArchWell Health team to get to the bottom of it.
A Closer Look at Brain Health
To better understand the normal aging process, it helps to know that your brain changes throughout your life, which impacts cognitive function. The brain starts to shrink in middle age, and the rate of shrinkage increases by age 60. Consider this: A typical 90-year-old brain weighs 1,100 to 1,200 grams — at least 100 grams less than a typical 40-year-old brain.
Other common changes in the aging brain include:
- Declining levels of neurotransmitters, which play a key role in thinking, learning and memory
- Decreased blood flow, which can affect speech, movement and memory
- Increased inflammation, which can contribute to cognitive decline
But while these changes can affect brain function in healthy older people, they don't have the final say. Many older adults have larger vocabularies, deeper understanding of the meaning of words and greater knowledge than younger adults do. In fact, verbal abilities and abstract reasoning actually improve as we age. Older adults can also form new memories and learn new skills — even if it takes a little extra time. The aging brain can adapt and change, giving you the opportunity to rise to new challenges in your golden years.
Understanding Cognitive Decline
Keep in mind that while some degree of cognitive decline is a normal part of aging, dementia is not. Dementia involves a loss of cognitive function that interferes with your everyday activities and quality of life. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia in people over age 65.
There are three stages of Alzheimer's disease: mild, moderate and severe:
- Mild: The first stage of Alzheimer's involves memory loss and potential issues such as wandering, trouble paying bills and taking longer than normal to complete daily tasks.
- Moderate: In this stage, the person may have trouble with language, reasoning, conscious thought and sensory processing.
- Severe: In the third stage of Alzheimer's, brain tissue has shrunk to a degree that the person cannot communicate and is completely dependent on others for care.
The causes of Alzheimer's disease likely include a combination of age-related changes in the brain, along with genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors. But several strategies may help reduce the speed of cognitive decline, including engaging in mentally stimulating activities, maintaining social connections and prioritizing physical activity.
Cognitive Exercises for Older Adults
You've probably heard of the “use it or lose it" principle. When applied to senior brain aging, it's a reminder that if you don't use an area of your brain for a while, you can lose that cognitive function altogether.
Don't let that happen to you! There are many cognitive exercises to help boost your brain health and improve memory. Here are some to consider.
One large study found that doing just 15 minutes of brain-training activities at least five days a week improved brain function, including working memory, short-term memory and problem-solving skills. Researchers used activities from the free site Lumosity that focus on the ability to recall details and quickly memorize patterns.
Many sites and apps offer these types of brain games. If you're an AARP member, you can take advantage of free access to Staying Sharp®, an award-winning digital program that includes a variety of engaging games that test your focus, recall and word skills.
If physical games like bridge, chess or Scrabble are more your speed, you can still reap mental rewards. Just call a few friends, break out the game box and get ready for a good time (while simultaneously benefiting your brain).
Your local ArchWell Health center also hosts bingo, card game events and more. And you don't have to be a member to join these fun classes and activities.
Your whole body is interconnected, which is why physical exercise directly impacts your brain health. Regular exercise reduces the risk of age-related decline and protects the brain against degeneration. It can also improve your memory, cognition and motor coordination.
Try one of these simple and fun aerobic activities to strengthen your body and your mind:
- chair yoga at ArchWell Health
- zumba classes at ArchWell Health
- cross-country skiing
Bonus: You can easily do these activities with a friend, which enhances the brain benefits — a recent study showed that people who had more frequent social contact had a lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
A Word from ArchWell Health
Remember, dementia doesn't go hand in hand with aging. Consider the case of cognitive super agers. These 80-and-over marvels boast memory performance comparable to people 20 to 30 years younger. Enriching experiences — as well as plenty of social engagement — may contribute to their successful senior brain aging.
So don't let cognitive changes have the last word. You have the power to boost your brain health! Reach out to your ArchWell Health care team to help you create your healthy aging plan today.
About the Author
Karina Bailey, FNP-C, Nurse Practitioner, Tucson
Karina Bailey, a Certified Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP-C), grew up in Orlando, Florida and now she’s putting her skills to use by providing quality care for seniors. “I believe the geriatric population deserves providers who promote exceptional healthcare,” she says. “I chose ArchWell Health because of the care model it provides to a population and community that is in need of comprehensive care.” Married with three children, Karina still finds time to enjoy Pilates, traveling, and decorating.