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How to Keep Your Brain Sharp and Healthy as You Age

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How to Keep Your Brain Sharp and Healthy as You Age

Feeling forgetful? Preserving your mental abilities as you get older is easier than you think.

an older woman reading
A study suggests that learning new skills, such as how to use a tablet, can stimulate your brain as you get older.Robert Daly/Getty Images

So you've noticed some changes in your thinking. Perhaps you often misplace your keys or have trouble coming up with the right word in conversations. But how do you know if these changes are a normal part of getting older, or if they might be pointing to a health problem such as dementia?

How Your Brain Changes as You Get Older

Your brain's volume gradually shrinks as you get older. When this occurs, some of the nerve cells in your brain can shrink or lose connections with other nerve cells. Blood flow within your brain slows somewhat as you age, too. These age-related changes are thought to be behind the differences in cognitive function many people notice as they age. Everyone has lapses in memory from time to time, but significant memory loss is not a normal part of getting older. It's important to talk with your doctor if you or a loved one is experiencing memory loss and other cognitive symptoms that interfere with normal activities and relationships.

How Dementia Can Affect Cognitive Skills

Dementia occurs when nerve cells in the brain stop working, lose connections with other brain cells, and die. The National Institute on Aging defines dementia as having two or more core functions that are impaired, including memory, language skills, visual perception, and the ability to focus and pay attention. Cognitive skills, such as the ability to reason and solve problems, may also be impaired.

There are several different causes of dementia, including:

  • Alzheimer's disease The most common cause of dementiaAlzheimer's disease occurs when nerve cells in the brain become damaged or die. The disease affects the parts of the brain that are involved in thinking, remembering, problem-solving, using language, and other cognitive skills.
  • Vascular dementia The second leading cause of dementia, vascular dementia is a decline in thinking skills caused by cerebrovascular disease, a condition in which blood vessels in the brain are damaged and brain tissue injured, depriving brain cells of vital oxygen and nutrients, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Individuals at highest risk include those who have had a stroke or a transient ischemic attack (TIA, also known as a "ministroke").
  • Lewy body dementia The third most common form of dementiaLewy body dementia is caused by abnormal protein deposits that accumulate inside nerve cells, forming clumps called Lewy bodies. As a result, nerve cells no longer function adequately and begin to die. This impacts thinking, memory, behavior, sleep, mood, and movement.
  • Frontotemporal dementia Frontotemporal dementia is the most common form of dementia for people under age 60, and it’s caused by degeneration of the frontal and/or temporal lobes of the brain. FTD leads to a gradual, progressive decline in behavior, language, or movement, with memory usually relatively preserved, according to The Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration.
  • Other types of dementia Human immunodeficiency virus(HIV) infection, Huntington's disease, head trauma, and other health conditions can affect nerve cells in the brain, leading to symptoms of dementia.