How to Keep Your Brain Sharp as You Age

Stay mentally fit through exercise, socializing, a healthy diet and quality sleep

Older woman cutting up fresh vegetables outside

As we age, some changes feel like they’re out of our control, especially when it comes to senior brain health. We’d all like to know how to avoid cognitive decline, and fortunately, many studies are showing that there’s no shortage of beneficial activities you can do – and harmful things you can avoid – to stay mentally and physically fit.

Justin Guest, Vice President of Engage Life for Holiday by Atria, has decades of experience designing programming for older adults. In this blog, he’ll outline his top four tips for staying mentally sharp as you age. From brain exercises for seniors to good sleep habits for brain health, Guest covers your options for maintaining and even improving your cognition.

Tip 1: Harness brain health through fitness

Two senior women sitting and stretching with an exercise band

It turns out that maintaining brain fitness for seniors may start with regular fitness for seniors.

“Just like your body, your mind needs a workout,” Guest says. “Watching TV – although enjoyable – doesn’t activate the mind.” In fact, studies show that adults over 65 watch nearly three times as much TV per day as younger adults, though they enjoy it less and report lower life satisfaction when they participate in fewer engaging or social activities.

Starting a senior workout

If you’re not already following a workout routine, there’s still good news – adding even moderate activity can offer a big brain boost. In a collaborative report with AARP, the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) reported that exercise can have a positive impact on the brain in as little as six to twelve months.

Here are Guest’s two suggestions for developing a more active mind through exercise:

1. Keep moving

You may have already heard about the importance of getting in 10,000 steps a day. While that adds up to around five miles, those steps can come from all kinds of activities. “I’m not even talking about rigorous exercise here,” Guest says. “Just get up and move around.”

Whether you get outside to do light yard work, start taking the stairs instead of the elevator or go for an extra walk with the dog instead of watching the next program on TV – every step counts as beneficial brain activity for seniors.

2. Take up daily exercise

In addition to improving overall fitness, regular exercise for seniors increases blood flow, delivering highly oxygenated blood to the brain. Exercise helps you sleep – another important part of maintaining a healthy brain – and the strength you develop through exercise will help you feel more confident about doing the activities you enjoy most.

There are many ways to increase your daily exercise. Here are just a few ideas.

  • Take a fitness class for seniors.
  • Start going to your local fitness center, YMCA or JCC.
  • Develop a sustainable home fitness routine.
  • Stretch and stay flexible.

Guest points out that people are more likely to follow healthy habits that make them feel good if they already feel good. “When your body feels bad,” he says, “you don’t want to be active. It’s a feedback loop.”

Tip 2: Two heads are better than one

Three senior woman taking photos outside

In addition to inactivity, depression and loneliness can take a big toll on mental health and cognitive function. In fact, loneliness is considered the leading cause of death when connected to different health issues.

“If someone is depressed and physically isolated,” says Guest, “their mind isn’t going to be active. That low stimulation can set you back cognitively.” He notes that people who are in a familiar environment may be experiencing this decline without showing symptoms, but a change in environment can make those symptoms clearer as someone struggles to adapt.

As further proof that friends are key to senior health and wellness, the Harvard Medical School reports that socializing can help strengthen neurological pathways and improve memory, while at the same time, loneliness can increase the risk of dementia by as much as 40%.

Stay connected

Given how beneficial socializing is for brain health – and how damaging it is not to have a strong social network – it’s no wonder that spending time with others is one of Guest’s top tips for mental well-being. “People are social,” he says. “It’s important to spend time together.”

If you’ve found your social circle shrinking, it can be frustrating. It’s also an opportunity to meet new people. If you already know everyone at the places you usually visit, this might require trying something new – another good habit for staying mentally sharp.

Brain exercises for seniors

Whether you take a ceramics class, join a fitness club or take online dating for a spin, you’re sure to meet many new people and at least a few great friends. Even when you’re alone, there are things you can do to flex your mental muscle.

Here are a few of Guest’s suggestions.

  • Stay engaged. There are many helpful memory games and activities for seniors, including working puzzles, playing sudoku and reading a great book. He doesn’t recommend brain apps for seniors, though. “Too often they overpromise,” he says, and more benefit can be gained with other activities.
  • Learn something new. Writing, art and music all provide opportunities to create new neural pathways. Studies show that taking classes and learning in a supportive environment isn’t just about how to avoid cognitive decline – it may also offer improved memory and cognition.
  • Be mindful. Meditation and prayer can help increase focus and attention, as well as offer a sense of peace through challenging situations.

Tip 3: Choose healthy food for thought

Senior man enjoying lunch outside

According to Guest, diet is a big part of staying sharp. “Food is our fuel,” he says, “so it’s important to eat natural foods that our bodies can process and use.”

In fact, managing cardiovascular risk factors is thought to be one of the most effective ways to help protect your brain. Because health issues like diabetes can increase the risk of stroke and dementia, overall health is critical for avoiding cognitive decline later in life.

Best diet for senior brain health

Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) is a simple diet with a complicated name. This diet encourages eating foods that are good for both brain and heart health.

Most people think of diets as being about what not to eat, but the MIND diet is focused on including good choices in your normal cuisine – which may naturally start to take the place of some less-healthy alternatives.

To follow the MIND diet, load up on daily servings of vegetables – especially leafy greens, as well as whole grains and berries throughout the week. Nuts and beans provide a regular source of protein, while meats like poultry and fish are limited to just a few servings per week.

Guest also stresses the importance of drinking enough water, since senior dehydration can be responsible for everything from confusion and faintness to traumatic falls.

Gain health through moderation

While the MIND diet is mostly about adding healthy choices rather than eliminating comfort foods, Guest recommends limiting foods high in fat and salt, such as fried or fast food – and cutting back on alcohol. Studies show that even moderate alcohol use can have adverse effects on brain health, and excessive alcohol consumption can cause learning and memory problems in both the short and long term.

At the same time, Guest notes that moderation is key. “I’m not saying don’t eat cake, or don’t have a glass of wine, but add more fruits and vegetables to your diet. If you eat meat, choose fish and other healthy alternatives to red meats.”

The food writer Michael Pollan puts it simply in his book In Defense of Food, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Tip 4: Give your brain a break

Senior woman sitting in bed and using iPad

When it comes to sleep and brain health, getting enough rest is critical. Sleep is important for processing memory and synthesizing proteins. On the flip side, studies show that loss of sleep negatively impacts attention, memory and executive function.

Here are some of Guest’s recommendations for good sleep habits for seniors:

  • Don’t eat heavy meals right before bed.
  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule, where you go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
  • Exercise and get outdoor sunlight exposure during the day.
  • Try to get seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
  • Avoid looking at screens right before bed. Instead, spend 30-60 minutes reading a book, writing or listening to music to help calm your mind.
  • If you suspect you or your partner may have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor. Treating sleep problems will help you get better rest, improving your memory and cognition.

How to prevent cognitive decline

When it comes to maintaining senior brain health, there are a couple of key takeaways.

First, you have real control. From developing healthy habits to learning new things, there are many beneficial cognitive activities for seniors. Second, taking care of your brain health can be fun. Whether you try brain games for seniors, sign up for piano lessons or take a Zumba class with friends, part of aging well is enjoying the process.

At Holiday by Atria, we’ve designed a lifestyle for optimum aging. From making opportunities for connection and lasting friendships to offering regular fitness classes and balanced meals, we strive to put staying mentally fit within easy reach.

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