An older adult woman sits at a table with her granddaughter. They smile and look at a smartphone.
Avoiding or delaying cognitive decline in older age may be possible with these four tips on supporting brain health.

At a certain point in aging, the body takes more time to process, engage, and move. Muscles and joints may ache, and digestion can slow, not to mention that remembering the mail carrier’s name can be a chore. Aging may be inevitable, but the negative effects of aging on the brain may not be. Here, we explain how the brain changes as you age, what can be expected with aging, and a few proven suggestions to maintain or even improve brain health and fight cognitive decline.

How the brain ages

No two individuals age in the same way. Similarly, our brains are all unique. Despite this, three commonalities are found in most brains in older age. Changes in the brain’s cognitive functions, like remembering, reasoning, and other thought processes are related to three specific downturns. 

  • Brain size. The size of certain but variable regions reduces, affecting processes like memory, new learning, and attention span. 
  • Brain connections. The nerves and the way they connect can deteriorate over time. And few of us make new neural connections after midlife. 
  • Brain messengers. Another aging brain change is the ability to produce and sustain optimal brain hormones like dopamine and serotonin. As a result, memory can suffer.

If this sounds ominous, rest assured that one thing stays stable or improves with aging: its plasticity. That’s a term for the brain’s ability to reroute connections and adapt, and it remains steady throughout one’s lifespan.

In other words, loss of memory or other cognitive abilities is not an inevitable outcome of aging. 

Dementia, and other diseases that affect the brain (like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s), can and will directly affect cognitive functioning, however. 

Disease-related conditions

Dementia is the umbrella term for multiple types of brain diseases that progress to a significant decline in all aspects of functioning and eventually result in death. Alzheimer’s disease results in dementia as a part of its advancement.

Dementia is prevalent but not inevitable. And just because an older adult has lapses in memory, this is not necessarily an early dementia diagnosis.    

Just know that research seems contradictory at this time on how age and memory interact. This 2022 study showed that just because a person felt like their memory was slipping didn’t necessarily mean there was significant impairment or decline. That doesn’t mean that evaluations are unnecessary, though. They’re still a good idea if you or a family member has concerns. 

Luckily, science proves even an older brain can adapt and learn, even as age changes the brain. Some proactive lifestyle strategies to embrace now can lead to avoiding, reducing, or delaying cognitive decline at any age.

You may find that you’ve heard these suggestions before. That’s because they are proven to support overall health. What’s new here is that research is confirming that these time-tested strategies have a powerful effect on brain wellness. Because the body is a complex interaction between all the systems, even doing one of these strategies can positively affect others.

How to fight cognitive decline as you age

The following suggestions are no longer a secret recipe for healthy living. Applying one or more of them may influence long-term brain health and wellness. 

Exercise to protect brain health

It’s no longer mysterious that regular exercise that increases your heart rate helps the human body overall. In this case, it also supports and even improves cognitive abilities and mood as we age. 

High blood pressure can lead to both dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. One benefit of moving the body is that your blood pressure will likely reduce to a healthier level.

According to April Ibarra, MGS, a certified gerontologist in the Cincinnati area, exercise is her top suggestion for healthier cognition: “Heart disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and strokes are risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Exercise contributes to greater heart health.”

Reduce chronic stress to fight cognitive decline

Some stress is normal. Too much for too long impairs certain parts of the brain from sending appropriate signals. It can even shrink the brain. Calm hobbies such as reading, crafts, or meditation go a long way to help ease stressors. And, of course, daily physical activity is key for letting off steam.

Nurture meaningful activities and relationships to keep your brain active

Social isolation and lack of meaningful involvement statistically lead to depression at any age. Isolation and loneliness are at epidemic proportions for older adults. Depression, a common mental health issue among older adults, may increase dementia risk.

Volunteerism, attending worship services, or getting involved in activities at the local senior center or your senior living facility are some ways to fight seclusion. 

Break the vicious cycle of solitude leading to further heavyheartedness by leaning on others, your family or friends, for company and connection.

Focus on nutrition for healthy brain aging

How much you eat and what you eat can help your brain age healthily. When it comes down to it, food is made of nutrients that fuel all the processes in our brains. Fueling ourselves with the right foods can help people age well and fight cognitive decline.

  • Watch how much you eat. Lowering your daily calorie intake is scientifically proven to positively affect brain function in a complex interaction with heart health, insulin metabolism, and the immune system. This means making each meal count with healthy choices in every bite. For example, choose a protein powder fruit smoothie with yogurt over a high-calorie sweetened coffee drink.
  • Watch what you eat. Ibarra continues, “Research does show that eating a Mediterranean diet may decrease your risk for diseases of the brain. Consuming an inflammatory diet high in sugar, processed meats, fried foods, and refined starches may increase risk.” Reject the processed microwave meal that has too much salt and bad fats. Instead, reach for lean meats, whole grains like brown rice, and steamed vegetables. 
  • Drink green tea. This simple, ancient beverage is a powerhouse to reduce age-related brain decline. It is an antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory properties in every cup. It seems green tea also promotes a healthy gut microbiota, furthering the latest discoveries about the gut being the body’s “second brain.” 
  • Add a B-complex supplement to your regime. B vitamins, especially B6, B9, and B12, are shown to provide cognitive protection as we age. B vitamins are water-soluble. This means that they leave our bodies every time we urinate. Taking a B-complex supplement and eating foods like green veggies, salmon, beans, nuts, and whole grains boosts B vitamin blood levels, resulting in better brain function.

If these tips seem familiar, well, they probably are. Research continues to verify that the positive lifestyle choices above affect general well-being. And the great thing is that one or more of these lifestyle changes can lead to maintaining brain health. 

The general effects of aging may not be avoidable. Yet, science shows us there may be ways to delay or avoid cognitive decline. The suggestions above all build upon one another to protect brain function, increasing the odds in your favor.