As they age, most older adults start to notice at least a modest decline in mental prowess. Tasks that require the ability to learn new things or retrieve information may become more difficult over time.
This doesn’t mean you need to look into senior care. Moderate decline in mental capability is not necessarily a sign of a neurodegenerative disease like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, or some other form of dementia. Change comes at all levels as we age— both in body and in mind.
Skin loses elasticity and begins to wrinkle, injuries take longer to recover from, and the brain begins to undergo transformation.
- Shrinkage occurs in certain parts of the brain important in learning, remembering, and planning. The prefrontal cortex at the tip of the frontal lobe and the hippocampus are especially affected.
- Communication slows between neurons and neurotransmitters as white matter degrades.
- Changes in the blood flow reduce the brain’s oxygen supply as arteries narrow and the growth of new capillaries slows.
- In some people, plaque builds up between nerve cells in the brain and tangles form in the cell body of neurons. Though these structures are prevalent in individuals who suffer from Alzheimer’s, their presence in the brain does not mean you have the disease.
- Inflammation and potential damage from free radicals increase.
Neuroplasticity doesn’t have to fade with age.
While most changes to the brain are unavoidable, prevailing wisdom states that creative and intellectually rigorous endeavors help slow the decline of mental capabilities as we age. You can sustain good brain function in your senior living by instituting a few habits that also help promote overall health.
- Know your risks for chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, and work to control factors. Keep blood cholesterol and pressure at healthy levels and strive for a healthy weight.
- Exercise your mind. Just like with your muscles, your brain needs exercise to stay in shape. Pick up a hobby that requires you to learn a new skill. Do crosswords or Sudoku puzzles. Read books and articles that make you think.
- Build social connections as you stimulate your mind. Play strategy games or engage in intellectual conversation with family members and friends.
- Stay active. Physical activity may play just as important a role in keeping your brain healthy as mental stimulation does. Get outside and soak up some Vitamin D as you walk around the neighborhood. Increase your flexibility and promote total wellness by taking a yoga class at your retirement community.
- Eat a healthy diet. According to the National Institute on Aging, recent studies show that a “Mediterranean diet” may help promote mental health and reduce your risk of cognitive decline. You’ll want to stock up on the vegetables, legumes, fruits, cereals, fish, and mono-unsaturated fats. But cut back on saturated fats, dairy products, meat, and poultry.
The aging mind has power.
Don’t resign yourself to an inescapable downward decline, put off, but not eliminated, by healthy habits.
Research does show that seniors tend perform worse than young people on tasks that are complex or require the utilization of focused attention, new learning, or memory in a short period of time.
However, in healthy aging, the brain changes and adapts to compensate for decreased functions.
Given enough time to perform tasks, healthy adults in their 70s and 80s were able to match or even exceed the scores of young adults. This may shock some doom-and-gloom cognitive researchers, but university psychology departments and centers on aging across the country have been discovering a number of ways in which the brain actually improves with age.
As we age, adults often perform better in cognitive areas, such as vocabulary and other forms of verbal knowledge. Additionally, the ability to create and imagine greatly improves with age.