3 Things You Can Do to Protect Your Brain as You Age

What Can You Do to "Age-Proof" Your Brain?

Senior man looking at chess board
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Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related cognitive declines are a concern for many people, but research suggests that there are steps you can take to help keep your brain healthy as you age. Is the old “use it or lose it” mantra really true? Can keeping your brain engaged by solving puzzles and playing games really stave off the effects of age-related mental declines?

Estimates project that by the year 2050, the global population over the age of 65 will have grown to nearly 1.1 billion. Of these older adults, an estimated 37 million will suffer from dementia. For anyone who has ever had a loved one suffer from Alzheimer’s or some other type of age-related dementia, these are scary statistics.

While the jury is still out on whether playing such brain training games might make you smarter, research does suggest that things such as playing brain games and staying fit can help prevent cognitive problems as you age.

Let’s take a look at a few different tactics that can help you protect your brain as you age.

Enjoy Some Fun and Challenging Brain Games

Woman training her brain with crosswords
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When it comes to keeping your mind sharp as you age, new research suggests that the old adage of “use it or lose it” applies to even healthy elderly people. New research suggests that cognitive training could be a useful tool for preventing mental declines associated with aging.

Previous research has shown that cognitive training techniques such as learning new crafts and completing puzzles can help slow the progress of dementia as people grow older. More recently, research published in the journal BMC Medicine has found that such training can also be beneficial to healthy older adults as well.

In the study, participants between the ages of 65 and 75 took part in two hour-long cognitive training sessions each week for 12 weeks. These sessions involved activities designed to address memory, problem-solving, exercise, health education, reasoning, and map-reading. Participants were also given homework to complete outside of the training sessions.

The results revealed that this cognitive training was able to improve language, hand-eye coordination, memory, and reasoning among healthy adults.

“Compared to the control group, who received no training, both levels of cognitive training improved mental ability, although the multifaceted training had more of a long term effect,” explained the lead authors Chunbo Li and Wenyuan Wu. “The more detailed training also improved memory, even when measured a year later and booster training had an additional improvement on mental ability scores.”

If you are looking for some online brain games and apps to try, here is a nice list of options to get you started.

Read a Book and Write a Letter

Older woman writing a letter
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Researchers from Rush University Medical Center and Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago have found that mental activities such as playing games, reading, and writing can help keep the brain healthy as we age. Earlier research found that staying mentally active and engaging in cognitive activities can help preserve and maintain mental sharpness, but this newer research also suggests that such things can also help preserve the brain’s structural integrity.

“Reading the newspaper, writing letters, visiting a library, attending a play or playing games, such as chess or checkers, are all simple activities that can contribute to a healthier brain,” explained the study’s lead author, Dr. Konstantinos Arfanakis.

Using brain imaging, researchers were able to look at how water molecules move through the brain. This movement can be affected by factors such as age, disease, and injury.

“In healthy white matter tissue, water can’t move as much in directions perpendicular to the nerve fibers,” said Arfanakis. “But if, for example, you have lower neuronal density or less myelin, then the water has more freedom to move perpendicular to the fibers, so you would have reduced diffusion anisotropy. Lower diffusion anisotropy values are consistent with aging.”

Participants in the study included 152 elderly adults who were part of a large-scale study on Alzheimer’s disease risk factors. They were asked how often they participated in activities such as writing letters, reading newspapers, and playing board games. They also underwent brain MRI scans. Participants who reported higher cognitive activity levels were found to have higher diffusion anisotropy values in the brain.

“Several areas throughout the brain, including regions quite important to cognition, showed higher microstructural integrity with more frequent cognitive activity in late life,” Dr. Arfanakis said. “Keeping the brain occupied late in life has positive outcomes.”

The bottom line – keep that brain busy as you age! Keep learning new things, challenge your mind, keep reading the latest bestsellers, and break out a pen and paper and write a letter to an old friend. Your brain just might thank you.

Get Some Exercise to Prevent Brain Shrinkage

Older man exercising
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Regular physical activity is a great way to keep your body healthy as you age, but an abundance of research has shown that exercise is also good for your brain. Recent studies suggest that being fit during young adulthood and middle age can have a lasting impact on the brain.

One study published in 2014 found that young adults who were physically fit at age 25 had better cognitive function during middle age. The results of another study presented at a 2014 American Heart Association conference revealed that people who were in good physical shape during middle age were less likely to experience a reduction in brain volume later in life. Those who were in poor physical condition during adulthood had more brain shrinkage as they aged as performed worse on cognitive tests.

“Our investigation provides new evidence that lower midlife fitness and worse exercise BP and HR responses are associated with smaller brain volumes and poorer cognitive performance nearly two decades later,” the researchers explained. “Promotion of midlife physical fitness may be an important step towards ensuring healthy brain aging in the population.”

So if you want to boost your mental power now and protect the long-term health of your brain, consider starting a regular exercise routine. Being physically fit is not just linked to keeping your body strong – it will also keep your brain healthy today and for years to come.


American Heart Association. (2015, March 4). Better midlife fitness may slow brain aging. Retrieved from http://blog.heart.org/better-midlife-fitness-may-slow-brain-aging/

Cheng, Y., Wu, W., Feng, W., Wang, J., Chen, Y., Shen, Y., Li, Q., Zhang, X., & Li, C. The effects of multi-domain versus single-domain cognitive training in non-demented older people: a randomized controlled trial. BMC Medicine, 2012; 10 (1): 30 DOI: 10.1186/1741-7015-10-30

RSNA Newsroom. (2012, Nov. 25). Reading, writing and playing games may help aging brains stay healthy. RSNA Press Release. Retrieved from http://www2.rsna.org/timssnet/Media/pressreleases/pr_target.cfm?id=620

Spartano, N. L., Himalie, J. J., Beiser, A. S. DeCarli, C., Vasan, R. S., Seshadri, S. (2015). Relations of midlife exercise blood pressure, heart rate and fitness to late life brain structure and function. Presented at the American Heart Association EPI/Lifestyle 2015 meeting. Retrieved from http://my.americanheart.org/idc/groups/ahamah-public/@wcm/@sop/@scon/documents/downloadable/ucm_472491.pdf

Zhu, N., Jacobs, D. R., Schreiner, P. M., Yaffe, K., Bryan, N., Launer, L. J., Whitmer, R. A.... Sternfeld, B. (2014). Cardiorespiratory fitness and cognitive function in middle age: The CARDIA study. Neurology, 82(15). DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000000310

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