How the Brain Typically Ages
As you age, your brain's volume gradually shrinks. When this occurs, some of the nerve cells in your brain can shrink or lose connections with other nerve cells. In addition, blood flow within your brain slows somewhat in old age.
These age-related transitions are thought to be behind the changes in cognitive function many people notice as they get older. Everyone has lapses in memory from time to time, but significant memory loss is never a normal part of old age. It's important to talk with your doctor if you or a loved one is experiencing whose memory loss and other cognitive symptoms that are interfering with your normal activities and relationships.
Brain Changes That Lead to Dementia
Dementia is the impairment of mental functions including memory, language skills, perception, reasoning, and judgment. There are several different causes of dementia, including:
- Alzheimer's disease. The most common cause of dementia, Alzheimer's disease, occurs when nerve cells in
the brain become damaged or die, which leads to a gradual decline in cognitive ability.
- Vascular dementia. Vascular dementia, the second leading cause of dementia, occurs when the nerve fibers in the brain are damaged by cerebrovascular or cardiovascular problems – most often strokes.
- Lewy body dementia. Lewy body disease is when brain cells located in certain areas of the brain die, leaving abnormal, protein-filled nerve cells known as Lewy bodies.
- Frontotemporal dementia. Frontotemporal dementia occurs because nerve cells in the frontal and temporal lobes of their brain degenerate, which can interfere with brain activity and result in brain cell death.
- 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.
Dementia can strike anyone, but certain factors increase your risk for developing it, including:
- Advanced age
- Family history of dementia
- Excessive alcohol use
- Atherosclerosis (buildup of plaque in the arteries)
- High levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol
- High levels of homocysteine
Tips for Staying Mentally Sharp as You Age
Promising research indicates that taking the following steps may help keep your mind sharp as you age:
- Control cholesterol problems and high blood pressure.
Cholesterol problems and high blood pressure can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke, which are thought to contribute to the development of certain types of dementia.
- Don't smoke or drink excessively. Because these are both seen as putting you at increased risk of dementia, kick the habit if you smoke and, if you drink, do so only in moderation.
- Exercise regularly. Regular physical activity is thought to help maintain blood flow to the brain and reduce your risk of conditions such as high blood pressure that are associated with the development of dementia.
- Eat a healthy diet. People who consume plenty of vegetables and fatty fish and keep away from saturated fats are thought to have a lower risk of cognitive decline.
- Stimulate your brain. Keep your mind active by increasing your level of social interaction, learning new skills, playing challenging games, and doing other activities that require your brain cells to work. People who are more socially and intellectually engaged have a lower risk of developing dementia.