Like so many other parts of our bodies that are sagging and wrinkling, our brains are changing in size, structure and function as we age. But they don’t all follow the same course. Here, we look at what scientists are discovering now about what happens to our brain in later life and which strategies, if any, can influence the trajectory.
1. Snooze to safeguard your brain
There’s growing evidence that a good night’s sleep is critical to fighting dementia. Older people who don’t sleep long or soundly enough tend to have poorer cognitive function over time. (Makes sense, right? After all, a foggy-brained parent in their 20s will tell you the same thing.) Brain scans performed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggest that when older people don’t sleep well, their brains don’t have a chance to clean themselves of the protein fragments that eventually form the hallmark plaques of Alzheimer’s disease.
2. Perfect practice makes perfect
In 2016, Lumos Labs, the company behind Luminosity brain-training games, agreed to pay $2 million in damages caused by false advertising. But it doesn’t mean training doesn’t work. The University of Texas Center for BrainHealth has developed a program proven to slow age-related cognitive decline. Dubbed Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART), it’s backed by evidence published in Neurobiology of Aging. (By the way, there’s also an app for that.)
3. A mind in the gutter
A 2017 study in The Journals of Gerontology confirms previous research that sexy times in old age is linked to better brain power. Sexually active older adults, say U.K. psychologists behind the study, perform better on cognitive tests. Perhaps it’s thanks to the social connections, mental focus or physical exercise that can be part and parcel of a satisfying roll in the hay.
Unfortunately, newer results based on the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA) suggest the link is short-term. So … enjoy it while it lasts?
4. Bilingual brains have an edge in old age
A biomedical scientist at the Université de Montréal has found differences in the brain function of older people who speak more than one language. When these folks performed a complex task that involved screening out distracting information, their brain used fewer and more specialized regions, compared to unilingual people the same age. Thanks to decades of training, bilingual seniors are accustomed to zeroing in on relevant details while ignoring unimportant stuff. The researchers say this efficiency can help brain power in later life.
5. A tall drink of water
We’ve long known exercise nourishes the brain. It improves circulation, lowers inflammation and helps control stress. Now we’ve learned to make the most of your workout, you need water. Because older adults’ thirst signals are less active, they may not hydrate enough. A recent Boston study looked at the effects of exercise on the thinking skills of older cyclists. After a bout of physical activity, those who were properly hydrated performed much better on cognitive tests than those who were dehydrated. So drink up!