How to Keep Your Brain Sharp as You Age

The natural aging process is incredibly unkind to us humans. Just look at how it wrinkles the skin, eats away bone density, and steals functional mobility. Worse still, that’s not where it ends. As it turns out, the brain is particularly sensitive to aging effects: atrophying and becoming increasingly prone to malfunctioning as the years go by (1). Given the all-encompassing role it plays—controlling movement, speech, intelligence, emotion, and, essentially, every process that regulates the body—that’s understandably devastating to learn. But? There’s good news: your brain can age at a different rate than your chronological years (i.e., the “brain-age gap”) (2, 3, 4, 5). 

A negative brain-age gap, where the biological age of your brain is lower than your actual age, is associated with a lower risk of neurodegenerative disease and dementia (6, 7). Even better news? There are things you could do to nudge your brain-age gap into the negative numbers territory so you stay sharp and agile-minded well into your golden years. (Bonus: many of these strategies may also help fend off other unsavory, age-related effects on the body—talk about killing two birds with one stone!) Start with these seven. 

Brain health as we age

#1: Keep learning new things 

Can’t remember the last time you learned something new? It’s time to change that. Learning something new (it could be anything—a language, skill, or sport) could help keep your brain cells on their A-game. More specifically, research shows that novel cognitive stimulation can help increase myelin (i.e., white brain matter) density and create new connections between neurons (8, 9). This is possible regardless of your chronological age.  

If you need further convincing, here’s proof: according to this 2019 study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, even participants above the age of 75 showed significant improvements in cognitive functioning and more neuroplasticity after spending just four months learning a new language (10)!

#2: Maintain strong relationships and social ties

Humans are social animals. Meaning? When you’re socially isolated, your brain pays the price. Research agrees. Individuals who are socially isolated or feel lonely also tend to perform worse on tests relating to thinking ability—especially when required to process information rapidly (11, 12). Several meta-analyses have consistently found that social isolation or pervasive feelings of loneliness in older adults may increase the risk of dementia by up to 50% (13). While scientists are still trying to figure out the underlying neural mechanisms, loneliness has been linked with the two key brain changes that occur in Alzheimer’s disease: the build-up of beta-amyloid and tau proteins in the brain (14, 15). 

What’s the takeaway here? Focus on building and maintaining your social circles to protect your brain health. Don't worry. You don't have to go out of your way to collect a bus full of companions; research suggests that just a handful of close friends can be enough (16).  

#3: Optimize your ability to see and hear (if necessary)

According to a 2017 international analysis published in The Lancet, hearing loss is the largest modifiable risk factor for developing dementia, exceeding even that of smoking, high blood pressure, and lack of exercise (17). Preventing or treating hearing loss in midlife could diminish the incidence of dementia by 9%. And spelling out the importance of healthy vision is this 2022 study published in JAMA Neurology (18). Based on data from the Health and Retirement Study, the researchers estimated that healthy vision could have prevented nearly 100,000 dementia cases!   

Wondering why healthy vision and hearing make such a huge difference? Imagine not being able to see or hear very well—would you be keen on socializing? Probably not. This reluctance, in turn, may lead to social isolation, and … at this point, you should already know what that causes. Beyond affecting cognition by limiting physical and social activity participation, hearing and vision loss also significantly decreases brain stimulation. And unfortunately, an inadequately stimulated brain tends to atrophy (19). So, take this as your sign to visit a healthcare professional if you cannot see or hear quite as well as you used to. They’ll have the necessary expertise to get you the help you need (e.g., hearing aids or cataract surgery).

#4: Cultivate a sense of purpose

Are you simply going through the motions, or are you actively living your life with a sense of purpose? Research suggests doing the latter could help protect your brain health as you age. Take this 2022 meta-analysis published in Ageing Research Reviews, for instance (20). After reviewing evidence from eight papers that included data from 62,250 older adults spanning three continents, researchers found that individuals with a sense of higher purpose or meaning in life faced a significantly reduced risk of multiple cognitive impairment outcomes, including dementia and mild cognitive impairment. Another notable finding is the association between a sense of purpose and a 19% reduced rate of clinically significant cognitive impairment.  

But, of course, living a purpose-driven life is often easier said than done. If like 75% of Americans, you’re stuck at the starting blocks—struggling to identify your life’s purpose—there are two good places to start (21). First, explore your passions and interests; think about what you’re good at and enjoy doing. Second, start conversations with new people. This could open your eyes to activities, causes, or career opportunities you never even knew existed, potentially bringing you one step closer to discovering your life’s purpose. 

#5: Take care of your gut health 

There's mounting scientific evidence that the gut microbiome is implicated in modifying an individual's susceptibility to and progress of neurodegenerative diseases (22, 23, 24). Accordingly, clinical studies now emphasize preserving a healthy gut microbiome to maintain brain functions during aging (25). How can you do so? Here are a few tips:

  • Eat a diverse range of foods: Research shows a diet consisting of different food types can lead to a more diverse microbiome, a marker of a healthy gut (26, 27, 28). 
  • Load up on fermented foods: Many fermented foods, like yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and tempeh, are rich in probiotics (i.e., “good” gut bacteria) (29). Can’t stand the taste of fermented foods? This tasteless, convenient probiotics supplement from Dr. Danielle ensures you get those good gut bacteria in without the yuck factor.
  • Strengthen your gut lining: An unhealthy gut lining spells disaster for your microbiome (30, 31, 32). So, be sure to take care of it with Dr. Danielle’s Gut Assist.

#6: Consider following the Mediterranean or MIND diet 

Scientific studies have highlighted two diets that appear particularly beneficial in protecting the brain against cognitive decline: the Mediterranean and the MIND diet. For example, in this 2017 cross-sectional study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers analyzed the diets and cognitive performance of more than 5,900 older U.S. adults—and found that those who adhered most closely to either the Mediterranean diet or the MIND diet had a 30 to 35% lower risk of cognitive impairment than those who adhered less closely (33). 

For those uninterested in following strict dietary rules (you do you!), research shows that even “cherry-picking” specific aspects of the two diets could benefit brain health:

  • Colorful fruits and vegetables: In this 2021 observational study, researchers followed more than 77,000 people for about 20 years (34). They found that those with diets high in flavonoids—plant phenolics with significant antioxidant properties—were less likely to report signs of cognitive aging than those who consumed fewer flavonoids. Psst: you can boost your intake of dietary antioxidants through convenient supplements like Dr. Danielle’s Alpha Lipoic Acid, Bee Pollen, and Turmeric Curcumin, too.  
  • Seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids: Many types of seafood, in particular, fatty fish (e.g., salmon and tuna), are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which have long been associated with better brain health and reduced risk of age-related dementia or cognitive decline (35, 36). 
  • Olive oil: A 2022 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology of more than 92,000 U.S. adults found that higher intakes of olive oil were associated with a 29% lower risk of dying from neurodegenerative disease when compared with those who never or rarely consumed olive oil (37). 

#7: Manage your stress levels 

How would you rate your stress levels out of ten daily? If your score constantly hovers above seven, you're putting your brain health at risk. A growing body of evidence now finds that chronic stress may contribute to the development of dementia by:

  • Ramping up the body's production of cortisol: Various clinical studies show that elevated cortisol is associated with poorer cognitive functioning, poorer episodic memory, executive functioning, language, spatial memory, processing speed, and social cognition (38).  
  • Increasing the risk of depression and anxiety: Stress is closely linked to mental disorders like depression and anxiety, two factors that could increase the risk of dementia (39, 40, 41). 
  • Disrupting normal brain processes: Stress could negatively influence the brain’s immune system. This, in turn, causes chronic disruption of normal brain processes—increasing the risk of subsequent neurodegeneration and, ultimately, dementia (42).   

While you can’t always eliminate stressors from your life, you could leverage effective stress-relieving techniques to minimize their impact on your brain health. A few examples include meditation, exercise, yoga, and aromatherapy (43). Of course, let's not forget Dr. Danielle’s Stress Lift.  

Act today for a healthier, sharper brain

Yes, the brain shrinks and “wears out” with age. But, as outlined in this article, there are many things you could do to slow—and possibly reverse—the decline. And there’s no better time to act than now.

To Your health and happiness, Doctor Danielle

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