Aging and the Brain
The brain performs critical cognitive, emotional, and mental processes throughout life. Like all of the body, the brain changes with age. The areas responsible for memory function, for instance, begin shrinking as people enter their 30s and 40s. Chemical changes mean neurons may not respond as quickly. Inflammation may increase and blood flow may decrease, impeding brain function. While some memory and recall abilities may slow, research shows that older people can perform at the same cognitive levels if given a little additional time.
Much of the brain is prewired, but some of its functionality can be impacted by environmental and lifestyle choices. These choices are particularly important as people age and become susceptible to dementia and cognitive decline. People who eat a healthy diet, stay physically active, maintain their health through routine and preventative care, and stay cognitively and socially connected are less likely to suffer decline and more likely to delay dementia. These lifestyle choices are particularly important as 2 billion people will be age 60 or older by 2050.
Nutrition and Aging
Just like an unhealthy diet can clog the heart, excess sugar and fat can cause inflammation and damage in the brain. Nutrient deficits can also keep the brain from performing at optimal levels. People should eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats.
Research shows that the brain benefits from a Mediterranean diet, heavy on plant-based food and olive oil that contains monounsaturated fats. This diet helps keep blood sugar stable. People who adhere to it tend to have lower rates of dementia. High fiber foods, seafood and nuts rich in omega 3 fatty acids may lower the risk of stroke and heart disease. People who eat blueberries, strawberries, and dark, leafy greens, including kale and spinach, may experience lower rates of dementia. While too much alcohol is harmful, one glass of wine a day may help reduce dementia.
Because there is little research to support supplements advertised to have brain boosting powers, doctors suggest instead eating a diet rich in nutrients. A multivitamin may be helpful and patients with confirmed vitamin D or B12 deficiencies should take supplements. Staying hydrated is also important to cognitive performance and overall health.
Activity and Aging
Staying active – socially, cognitively, and physically – is important in keeping the brain healthy. Physical activity is critical in controlling chronic risk factors, such as weight and blood sugar. People who are physically active early in life tend to experience cognitive decline later than those who are not. Experts recommend about 150 minutes a week of aerobic activity, including cycling, swimming, yoga, and high-intensity training. People can stay cognitively engaged through puzzles, brain games and apps designed to mentally engage the user. Reading, chess, crossword puzzles, painting, drawing and book clubs are also excellent options.
Sleep and Aging
Good sleep helps maintain mental health. Sleep deprivation affects psychological and cognitive ability, increasing the risk of depression, among other issues. A good night’s sleep reduces the risk of falls and has been shown to improve immune function. Sleep removes toxins from the brain. Doctors don’t have a magic number, but generally recommend that adults sleep seven to nine hours a night. Sleep issues, such as apnea, need to be addressed. Caffeine, alcohol, and electronic screens should be avoided before bed to improve sleep quality and quantity.
What you can expect at UTHealth Houston Neurosciences
UTHealth Houston Neurosciences brings together a multidisciplinary team of board-certified, fellowship-trained neurosurgeons, neurologists, researchers, and pain management specialists to help provide relief for even the most complex problems. Your team will share insights, leading to better treatment decisions and outcomes. You will receive expert care, excellent communication, and genuine compassion.
We first investigate nonsurgical treatment options, including medical management, pain management, physical therapy, rehabilitation, and watchful waiting. When surgery is needed, our neurosurgeons routinely employ innovative minimally invasive techniques. Throughout the treatment process, we will work closely with the doctor who referred you to ensure a smooth transition back to your regular care. While you are with us, you will receive expert care, excellent communication, and genuine compassion.