As we age, changes are happening in many different areas of our bodies, and the brain is no exception. Researchtells us that certain parts of the brain shrink, particularly those critical to learning and other complex mental activities. Inflammation may increase in response to injury or disease, and communication between neurons in certain areas of the brain may not be as effective. These types of changes result in potential impacts on cognitive function, even for healthy seniors.

Still, ongoing studies in the area of brain health indicate that regardless of the aging process, the brain maintains an ability to adapt by creating new neural pathways. This phenomenon is referred to as neuroplasticity, and its good news for seniors interested in nurturing their brain health. Of course, accessing the full potential of neuroplasticity means focusing on various aspects of your lifestyle that are linked to cognitive health.

TheNational Institute on Agingsuggests the following ways to address these areas and support mental agility in the face of age-related brain changes.

1. Prioritize Physical Health

Basically, stay on top of your overall physical health by affording this area of your life the attention it deserves. Are you getting your recommended health screenings and properly managing chronic conditions (e.g., diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, etc.)? Its important to stay in communication with your health care provider regarding the medicines you take and understand their possible side effects on memory, sleep, and brain function.

Some of the more obvious factors for supporting physical health include things like limiting alcohol and avoiding nicotine products. You should also prioritize healthy sleeping habits and ensure youre getting enough quality sleep. Since brain injuries are detrimental to brain health and mental agility, try to reduce any hazards related to falls and other accidents.

2. Manage High Blood Pressure

Though many people associate blood pressure management withheart health, its conducive to brain health as well. Studies have shown that lowering your blood pressure (even below the previous standard target of 140 for systolic blood pressure) lowers the risk for mild cognitive impairment, which is a risk factor for dementia.

Because high blood pressure isnt always noticeable through clear signs or symptoms in everyday life, its important to have this checked regularly by your physician. If your doctor detects issues with escalated blood pressure, they may recommend lifestyle changes like an exercise routine or nutrition plan, or they might start you on medication. Regardless of the steps used to prevent and control high blood pressure, doing so is a good step toward supporting brain health and mental agility.

3. Consume a Healthy Diet

Speaking of a nutrition plan, lets talk about how maintaining a healthy diet plays into brain health and mental agility. Some research indicatesa link between healthy eating and the preservation of cognitive function or reduced risk of Alzheimer's. Theres actually some evidence that people who consume a Mediterranean diet have a lower risk of developing dementia. The science is still evolving, but theres speculation that this particular diets capacity to improve cardiovascular health might be the catalyst for reducing dementia risk.

A healthy dietis generally one that encompasses staples like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish and poultry, and low-fat or nonfat dairy products. It limits solid fats, sugar, and salt focuses on portion control, and emphasizes hydration. Theres also the continuously studiedMINDdiet, which when closely followed, has shown a reduced risk of Alzheimers and a slower rate of cognitive decline.

4. Focus on Physical Activity

While there are so many well-known benefits to staying physically active, whether, through exercise or daily activities, it may be surprising to learn that research has also shown a correlation between physical activity and brain health. In one particular study, exercise proved to stimulate the brain's ability to maintain old network connections that are vital to cognitive health and make new ones. Other studies have shown that exercise increases the size of a certain brain structure thats important to memory and learning, which results in improved spatial memory. Its suggested that aerobic exercise is more beneficial to brain health than non-aerobic.

ThePhysical Activity Guidelines for Americansencourage adults to get at least two and a half hours of physical activity per week. For seniors, walking is a popular option, as are programs that instruct on how to move safely and prevent falls, which can further prevent brain injuries that impact mental agility. Always be sure to consult your physician before starting a new exercise regimen.

5. Keep Your Mind Active

Studies have shown that people who engage in personally meaningful activities say they feel happier and healthier and that learning new skills may improve thinking ability and memory. In addition to enhancing a seniors overall well-being and quality of life,engaging in new and old hobbies, particularly ones that are more cognitively demanding, can be beneficial for a seniors mental agility.

Keeping your mind active can encompass a wide range of enjoyable options, including anything from taking (or teaching) a class to volunteering or practicing a craft, like quilting, woodworking, photography, etc. Findings from observational studies suggest that certain informal activities that are mentally stimulating, such as reading or playing games, may lower the risk of Alzheimers-related cognitive impairment and dementia. Some scientists have argued that these activities protect the brain by establishing "cognitive reserve," or becoming more adaptable in some mental functions so it can compensate for age-related brain changes and health conditions.

6. Stay Social and Connected

We talk a lot aboutthe importance of seniors having adequate socialization and human connection, given the major benefits of doing sonot the least of which is cognitive health. Connecting with other people through social activities and community programs can keep your brain active and help you feel less isolated. People who engage in personally meaningful and productive activities with others even tend to live longer, and studies show that these activities may improve cognitive function.

Theres no substitute for spending quality time with family and friends. You may even consider volunteering for a local organization, joining a club, or simply meeting regularly with a walking group of older adults. Some of these types of activities have been associated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.

7. Manage Stress

Over time, chronic stress can change the brain, affect memory and increase your risk for dementia. Therefore, its essential tomanage stress and strengthen your capacity to bounce back from stressful situations. From regular exercise and relaxation methods to journaling and positivity or gratitude practices, theres a plethora of ways to reduce and manage stress. Regardless of the tactics that work best for you, stress management can have a significant impact on brain health and mental agility.

8. Mitigate Cognitive Health Risks

Theres a whole host of risk factors along with the genetic, environmental, and lifestyle spectrum that can affect cognitive health, any and all of which may contribute to a decline in thinking skills and the ability to perform everyday tasks (e.g., driving, paying bills, cooking, medication management, etc.). While the genetic factors cant be controlled, many of the environmental and lifestyle ones can be managed to reduce risk, including:

  • Some physical and mental health problems, such as high blood pressure or depression
  • Brain injuries, such as those due to falls or accidents
  • Some medicines, or improper use of them
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Poor diet
  • Smoking
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Sleep problems
  • Social isolation and loneliness

Its important to keep these risk factors in mind and talk to your physician about ways to mitigate them. By taking steps to reduce risks for cognitive decline, you or the senior in your life can do whats in your own power to help maintain brain health and mental agility.

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