illustration of a brain

Many of us assume that, like crow’s feet and love handles, memory loss is inevitable as we get older. But recent research published in the journal Cell Stem Cell suggests that older adults generate just as many new brain cells as younger ones.

“It’s good news because it proves that we can keep making memories and boost our health, no matter our age, especially if we embrace a healthy lifestyle,” says Zaldy Tan, M.D., M.P.H., medical director of the UCLA Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care Program.

The study did find that older adults’ brains had less blood-­vessel growth, which means a 70-year-old’s brain probably doesn’t function the same way as the brain of a 20-year-old, says Tan, who was not involved with the study.

Still, “as people move into their 60s and beyond, if they are proactive about their health—they exercise, eat right, manage their heart health, and in general keep their brain active—there’s a good chance they can keep their brain sharp for decades,” he says. Consider this ­expert advice on how to give your brain a boost.

Control Medical Conditions

Some medical concerns associated with ­aging can affect the brain as well as the body. For instance, high blood pressure, espe­cially in middle age, is linked to a higher risk of dementia later in life, accord­ing to a 2016 American Heart Association statement.

And a study published this past June in the journal Nature Chemistry suggests that high cholesterol can trigger the formation of amyloid-beta protein, a key player in Alzheimer’s disease. Atrial fibrillation (A-fib), a heart-rhythm disorder common in older adults, has also been asso­ci­ated with dementia.

More on Brain Health

So work with your doctor to control blood pressure and cholesterol. And note that those with A-fib who took a blood-thinning drug cut their risk of ­dementia by nearly half, according to a study published in 2017 in the European Heart Journal.

Sleep apnea has also been shown to ­increase amyloid-­beta protein. If you snore loudly, frequently wake up with morning headaches, or find yourself nodding off during the day, see a sleep specialist, says Thomas Wisniewski, M.D., director of the Center for Cognitive Neurology at NYU Langone Health. 

Other conditions that could affect the brain include hearing loss and depression. See your doctor if you have feelings of sadness or inexplicable irritability that last for longer than two weeks. And if you notice difficulty hearing the TV or conversations in noisy places, get your hearing checked, Wisniewski says.

Get a Move On

Regular aerobic activity boosts blood flow to your brain and helps maintain the size of the brain’s hippocampus, which is involved in memory and learning, Tan says. A 2016 study that Tan was involved in found that the more active older adults were, the larger their hippocampus.

“The protective effects were highest in those over age 75, which suggests that it’s never too late to start,” Tan adds.

To get exercise’s protective ­effects, you need 30 minutes of aerobic activity most days of the week, says Ronan Factora, M.D., program director for the Geriatric Medicine Fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic. That means working out at a level where you can say words such as “yes” or “no” but are unable to hold a conversation.

It’s also important to limit sitting, even if you get regular physical activity. Research published last April in PLOS One found that adults who sat for 3 to 7 hours a day had substantial thinning of their medial temporal lobes, which can be an early sign of impending dementia, says a co-author of the study, Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Longevity Center.

Choose a Brain-Healthy Diet

Eating plans that are rich in produce, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats (such as nuts), and low in high-fat proteins and processed foods appear to benefit the brain.

For instance, a study by the University of California, San Francisco published last year in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society linked the Mediterranean diet—which focuses on fruits, vegetables, healthy fats (such as olive oil and fish), ­legumes, and whole grains—to a 35 percent lower risk of cognitive impairment in older adults.

The study also found similar results with the MIND diet (a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, which is often recommended for those with high blood pressure).

And a study published in 2015 in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia found that those who followed the plan most rigorously saw significantly slower cognitive decline than those who were less diligent.

“It makes sense that any diet that also helps to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol would help your brain, too,” Small says. “The healthy fats also reduce brain inflammation, while the anti­oxidants in many of the foods help protect brain cells from wear and tear.”

Be Mindful

Several studies have found that regularly practicing mindfulness techniques such as meditation and yoga helps reduce risk of dementia.

For instance, a study published in 2016 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that people 55 and older who took a 1-hour weekly meditative yoga class and meditated at home for 12 minutes a day for three months had significant improve­ments in verbal memory (remem­bering word lists) and visual-spatial memory (such as the ability to find and remember locations).

These practices “help reduce stress, which is toxic to the brain,” Wisniewski says. But they may also help ­enhance the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that helps with the growth and maintenance of brain neurons.

Your brain can benefit from daily meditation, even if you do it for just 5 or 10 minutes, Small says. (Look for workshops at community centers or university medical centers.)

If you can’t—or you find that you don’t have the patience to meditate—then doing something relaxing each day, even sitting in a park, can help, too.

Check Your Meds

Older adults take an average of 14 different medications a year, according to the National Academy of Sciences. But some meds, such as older antihistamines, anti-anxiety drugs, and narcotics, may impair memory.

So review the medications you’re taking—over-the-counter and prescription, along with dietary supplements—with your primary care physician each year.

Know When to Seek Help

It’s normal to occasionally be forgetful, especially if you’re under stress, Small says. And as you age, you may find that it takes longer to learn new information, that you don’t recall recent events as well as you once did, and that you may forget where you put commonly used items such as car keys and eyeglasses.

See your doctor if you (or others) ­notice that you’re doing one or more of the following: asking the same questions repeat­edly; forgetting common words, such as “bed” and “car,” when speaking; mixing up words­­ (saying “radio” instead of “TV,” for instance­); taking longer to complete familiar tasks, such as following a recipe; putting items in inappropriate places (such as car keys in the refrigerator); getting lost while driving to familiar places; and experiencing mood changes that occur for no reason.

Does Brain Training Help?

You may have heard that computerized “brain training” games can help to stave off cognitive decline. But a number of studies haven’t found them to be very useful.

“Brain training can be beneficial, but really only for the task you’re specifically being trained for. For example, if you train a group of seniors on how to better memorize a supermarket list, they will generally improve, but they won’t be able to remember faces any better,” Tan says.

Instead, participate in intellectually challenging and interesting activities that are new to you, such as learning to paint. “Whenever we learn something that’s completely novel to us, we form new brain connections,” he says.

Even inconsequential activities can bring real benefits. A large Chinese study of people 65 and older, published in JAMA Psychiatry this past May, found that those who regularly participated in intellectual activities such as reading books or newspapers, and playing board games, card games, or mahjong, had a significantly lower risk of dementia over seven years of follow-up.

Keep up social activities, too. “Social isolation is another risk factor for dementia,” Tan says. Volunteering is a good option. Older adults who do so have a lower risk of dementia, according to a study published last year in PLOS One. 

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the September 2018 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.