Brain health: It's never too late to nurture a healthy mind

Brain health: It's never too late to nurture a healthy mind

By Monika Downey, PhD, MSCP

The brain is arguably the most vital and complex organ in the human body. It controls and coordinates everything we do, e.g., our actions and reactions, allows us to think and feel, and enables us to have memories and feelings. The brain is the source of every quality that makes us who we are. 

Good brain health is key to maintaining what’s most important to us as we age – our ability to be physically and mentally capable so that we can remain active and independent. If the brain isn’t healthy, then the body won’t be healthy either. It’s encouraging to know that memory loss isn't an inevitable part of growing older. Some scientists believe that the brain can actually develop new connections within itself. 

Let’s explore how the brain changes as we age, the differences between age-related forgetfulness and dementia, and some tips to keep your mind healthy and strong. 

What happens to an aging brain?

As we age, change can occur in all parts of the body, including the brain. But, normal age-related declines are very subtle and mostly affect thinking speed and attention. It’s important to remember that not everything declines as the years pass. In fact, vocabulary, reading and verbal reasoning remain unchanged or even improve during the aging process. We all know that wisdom only improves with age because of the many experiences that teach us valuable life lessons. 

As we get older, it’s typical to become concerned when we forget things or get confused. But these are usually signs of mild, age-related forgetfulness or memory loss – a normal part of aging that doesn’t impact or cause significant disruption to one’s daily life. 

Is it age-related forgetfulness or dementia? 

While forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging, people often worry that it’s the first sign of dementia. It’s important to remember that dementia is not a normal part of aging. So how can you spot the difference and when should you worry? 

Normal age-related decline

More concerning

Forget words at times

Frequent pauses and substitutions when finding words

Sometimes forget an acquaintance’s name

Forget names of close family members’ names or can’t recognize them

Can’t remember details of a conversation from a year ago

Can’t recall recent events or conversations

You are worried about your memory but your family is not

Family and friends are worried about your memory but you are unaware of an issue

You occasionally forget things or events 

You frequently forget things or events

There are different types of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and vascular dementia. Symptoms can vary from person to person. Always be sure to talk with your primary care practitioner (PCP), especially one who specializes in older adults, if you’re concerned about changes in your thinking and / or memory. Your PCP can help determine whether those changes are normal or whether they could be something else. There are many other potential causes for memory loss related to lifestyle, mental health or physical health that require proper evaluation by an expert who knows what to look for.

What kind of habits support a healthy brain? 

There are plenty of activities that can help make a difference in your brain health. And, adopting healthy lifestyle habits now can significantly reduce the risk for dementia later in life. Here are five healthy brain basics to keep your mind sharp and healthy as you age:

  • Adopt a nutrient-rich diet: Nutrition plays a vital role in supporting brain health. When considering a diet that is best for nurturing brain health, remember that what is healthy for the heart is generally healthy for the brain. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet for the heart or a Mediterranean diet are the best choices for brain health. Both of these eating plans encourage flexible and balanced choices – such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds –  that help protect from chronic disease. 

  • Get adequate sleep: Quality sleep plays a huge role in cognitive function and overall health! Some scientists believe that when we sleep, our body flushes and cleans our brains with cerebrospinal fluid that removes toxins and inflammation. In fact, there is some research that shows those with sleep issues have a higher rate of dementia later in life.

  • Exercise routinely: Regular physical exercise is consistently linked to cognitive benefits in older adults, as well as enhancing blood flow to the brain and promoting the growth of new neurons. In fact, several large studies have found that people who regularly participate in vigorous exercise, walking and even doing regular household chores can decrease the risk of developing dementia by up to 35 percent. It’s never too late to start incorporating exercise into your routine!

  • Try something new: Your brain has the ability to learn and grow as you age. It forms new connections each time we learn something new. This phenomenon is called neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change and rewire itself throughout life. With each connection formed, your brain health and your memory get better. Consider activities that stimulate the mind such as puzzles, reading, games, learning a new language, traveling, or simply starting a new routine. Just say “yes” to change and try something that makes your mind tired – it will help your brain in the long run.

  • Stay connected: Maintaining strong social connections is not only important for emotional well-being, it also contributes to cognitive health. Social engagement and interaction trigger the brain, providing opportunities for mental stimulation and emotional support. Loneliness and social isolation, on the other hand, have been associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline.

  • Engage in disease management: Certain medical conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases, can negatively impact brain health. Regular health check-ups, quitting smoking and effective management of chronic conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, are essential for minimizing their impact on cognitive function. 

The bottom line

Our brains do it all. Being proactive about brain health can go a long way in helping you stay sharp, maintain your quality of life, and prevent age-related decline. If you notice any changes in your brain health, consider requesting a memory assessment at your next appointment with your primary care provider (PCP). Regular memory tests can help identify even slight changes, allowing providers to jump in early with treatment and interventions that can make a difference in the long run. 


Monika Downey, PhD, MSCP, is the Senior Director of Behavioral Health at Patina. Dr. Downey earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from Palo Alto University and also holds a master’s degree in psychopharmacology from Alliant University.