Brain Health in Later Life
Massive leaps ahead have been made in neuroscience over the last decade or so. There’s no doubt that the human brain is a complex structure which we’re still learning so much about. As a residential and nursing care provider in the South West, with a distinct speciality in dementia care, we are fascinated by the brain and elderly people.
The ageing brains
The human brain is really quite remarkable. Throughout our lifetime our brain continues to change and adapt in a way more marked than any other part of our body. However, the brain, like all of our other organs, ages. We know that as we get older the volume of our brain decreases. Yet this ‘shrinkage’ isn’t consistent from person to person.
Nonetheless, our brains shrink at a rate of around 5% per decade after the age of 40. It’s widely accepted that the rate of decline increases over the age of 70. Shrinkage in two prime areas of the brain – the frontal lobe and the hippocampus – typically increases in later life and it is these areas which are vital for cognitive function and memory.
The effect of the ageing brain
It’s therefore not unsurprising that elderly individuals can show symptoms of their ageing brain, even without additional cognition-impairing conditions such as dementia. These difficulties can present in various different ways including:
- Struggling to learn new things: It is easier to remember things which were laid down in the brain years ago than it is to learn and remember new instructions. New information, for example how to use some new technology, can become particularly challenging the older we get.
- Struggling to remember recent events: For the same reason, it can be more difficult for older people to remember recent events with clarity. For example, it can be difficult to remember when appointments are, but also what was discussed during them.
- Recalling basic facts: The strategic process of accessing basic information which we hold is hindered by our ageing brain. This makes it more difficult to remember basic information we once took for granted. This may include names, numbers, words or things we once knew ‘by rote’.
- Multitasking: Executive functioning is largely controlled by the prefrontal regions of the brain. As these shrinks, it can become difficult to undertake tasks simultaneously leading to mistakes or even distress.
However, before we throw our hands up in despair, the good news is that the medical research field understands more and more about neuroplasticity. Studies are repeatedly showing that we can improve our brain function throughout our lives. We can also take steps to help reduce the decline of our brain.
How to keep the elderly brain healthy
Incorporating a few changes to our lifestyle can help to keep our brain healthy. You may have heard the saying that the brain is like a muscle: its strength increases the more you use it. This is true and we should bear this in mind as we make efforts to keep our brain healthy:
- Stimulate your mind: Neuroplasticity explains how our brains change, structurally, when we use it in particular ways. We can think of this like ‘re-wiring’. This process is used in rehabilitation centres for those who have sustained certain types of brain injury. However, we can also stimulate our brains easily. Learning new skills such as new card games or a craft can help. Doing puzzles, Sudoku, crosswords and jigsaw puzzles can all help. This is why it is vital that if your elderly relative enters a care home, they are engaged in a wide variety of activities and interests.
- Gentle exercise: Exercise for the elderly can be challenging. However, a walk or chair exercises can promote blood flow to the brain and help the brain to adapt and be healthy. Simply raising the heart rate moderately, for 20-30 minutes a day can really help.
- Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a form of gentle meditation which can be done by anyone at any age. It enables us to ‘relax’ our minds and thus bring clarity to our thoughts simply by focusing on our own breath.
- Diet: Eating a well-balanced and healthy diet is vital whatever our age. The brain draws on your diet for everything it needs for optimal health. Feed yourself healthily and you’re giving your brain a healthy boost.
- Socialisation: Interacting frequently with others in a variety of different ways can boost our brain health. It helps our overall mental well-being but it also helps to slow brain decline. For this reason we should embrace ways to encourage social interaction with friends and family. Joining in social activities through a care home can really help.
A word about dementia
It is normal for our cognitive function to decline to some degree due to ageing. We can take the above steps to minimise and slow this decline.
However, it is vital to remember that dementia is not considered a normal type or rate of ageing cognitive decline, rather a distinct condition by itself. If your loved one is experiencing significant memory loss, communication and language difficulties, problems with perception or other mental signs of dementia then do seek the advice of their doctor. You can read more about the symptoms of dementia here.
Our fascinating brains
It’s amazing what our brains can achieve all the way through our lives. Keep yours fit and healthy for as long as possible.