Fact or Fiction: The Truth About Brain Health as We Age

Caesar Djavaherian, MD, MS, FACEP
June 16, 2021
5 mins

You leave the grocery store and head into the parking lot — but now you have no idea where you parked your car. A few days later, you put your phone in a jacket pocket — and spend all morning looking for it. Then the name of your nephew’s new wife completely escapes you — but you were just at their wedding! Are these normal moments of forgetfulness, or are they signs of a decline in brain function? And is there anything you can do about it? 

Often, incidents like these are nothing to worry about. As you age, you may feel different in many ways — physically, emotionally, and mentally. Some changes are welcome, and some are unwelcome, such as increased forgetfulness. There are plenty of myths out there about brain health, memory loss, and aging, and we’d like to bust a few of them:  

+ Forgetfulness is a normal part of aging

Fact — kind of. Everyone forgets things. Older people — frequently starting in their 50s or 60s — definitely have it pointed out to them more and tend to worry about it more. But forgetfulness is often related to tiredness or having too many things competing for your brain’s attention. This common forgetfulness often shows up as misplacing keys or temporarily forgetting a name, and it’s usually nothing to worry about. To combat forgetfulness, try keeping a small notepad and pen in your pocket or purse to jot down things you need to remember or do, and use a calendar of some kind to remember appointments. (And read on for more ways to enhance mental sharpness.)

However, it is true that the older we get, the greater our risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of age-related dementia becomes. Signs can vary greatly from person to person and include: 

     • Consistent problems with short-term memory

     • Difficulty handling money and personal finances

     • Forgetting to plan and prepare meals

     • Not recognizing familiar people

     • Forgetting appointments, or confusion about what time or day it is

     • Getting lost in familiar environments 

If you notice serious changes in your thinking, behavior, or memory, speak with your primary care provider as soon as possible about possible health issues or reactions to medications.

+ You can’t teach an old dog new tricks

Fiction. It’s commonly thought that once we reach a certain point in life, we’ll struggle to learn or retain new information. The truth is, learning new skills and engaging in new activities are great ways to build and stimulate neural pathways in the brain. Trying a new hobby can even help improve cognitive skills. In addition, seeking out social interaction can support emotional and cognitive health. 

+ Over-the-counter supplements can give you a memory boost

Fiction. There are plenty of supplements out there promising a quick fix for memory struggles. Before you shell out your hard-earned cash for one of these supplements, it’s important to note that there is no conclusive research to support these supplements’ claims. It is true that certain nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, and vitamin D can support a healthy brain and body overall, but there is no magic memory pill. Instead, try incorporating more foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (such as fatty fish and walnuts), foods rich in vitamin B12 (such as eggs and lean meats), and foods rich in vitamin D (such as eggs) into your diet. 

Read “Do You Need a Daily Supplement?” for more about over-the-counter vitamins and other supplements. 

Speak to your physician about your diet and your most recent lab results. They may have recommendations based on your individual needs.

+ Brain-training games are good for the brain 

Fact — kind of. Brain-training games, apps, and puzzles can help while you are regularly using them, but they may not have a cumulative long-term effect. Think “use it or lose it.” Teaching the brain a new skill or a new way of thinking, as you do with puzzles or brain-training games, supports cognition and can help improve memory. A recent study reported cognition improvements for people over the age of 65 when they were trained in areas such as memory, reasoning, and speed of processing information. In addition, participants reported being able to perform daily activities with greater independence. 

+ Senior adults need less sleep

Fiction. Older people often sleep less than others and find it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep, for a variety of reasons. However, they still need the suggested seven to nine hours of sleep per night for adults — and if they’re having trouble, they should speak to a doctor about it. Poor sleep can contribute to forgetfulness, inattentiveness, and clumsiness. Taking a short nap in the early afternoon is one way to help ensure that you get the sleep you need, without interrupting precious overnight sleep

+ Senior adults should avoid exercise 

Fiction. Physical activity can not only help prevent injuries and falls, but also help maintain brain health. Physical activities that incorporate the mind, like yoga or tai chi, can be great for boosting mental and emotional health. Physical activity includes any movement that increases your heart rate, such as walking, gardening, playing with grandkids, and more. Looking for even more of a boost? Cardiovascular activities like aerobics, swimming, dance, and jogging can help maintain a healthy weight and improve sleep, which can help improve memory and cognition. 

+ Depression is a normal part of aging

Fiction. Building a long life of relationships, experiences, and hobbies has many emotional benefits. In fact, older adults may be less likely to experience depression or anxiety than younger people. Depression and loneliness can be experienced at any point in life, and they never have to be written off as “normal.” At every age, it’s important to seek treatment and help for depression. If you’re feeling lonely, depressed, or isolated, talk to a healthcare or mental health professional. If you’re thinking of self-harm, seek immediate care or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Keeping Your Brain in Great Shape

Pioneering neuroscientist Marian Diamond said that her research pointed to five key factors for a healthy brain: diet, exercise, challenge, newness, and love. When it comes to brain health as we age, overall health is a key factor. Choose a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, with a variety of protein sources. Be physically active for at least 30 minutes each day, to the best of your abilities. Keep yourself engaged with new hobbies, books, and puzzles that keep your brain active. Connect with loved ones and new friends. And lastly, check in with your primary care physician frequently, so you can discuss any changes in your behavior, mood, or memory. Having a physician you can speak honestly with is important when it comes to aging and memory.

If you’re looking for a primary care provider, Carbon Health can help you find a physician in your area that you can connect with for years to come. 

 


Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.

Caesar Djavaherian, MD, MS, FACEP

As Carbon Health’s Chief Innovation Officer, Caesar Djavaherian, MD, MS, FACEP, guides clinical innovation through product development, service expansion, and partnerships with transformative companies working to improve the healthcare ecosystem. He is an emergency medicine physician, a former high school teacher, and a reformed academic researcher. Caesar co-founded Direct Urgent Care to deliver technology-enabled urgent care throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. He has practiced at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the University Hospital of Columbia, and Weill Cornell Medicine. In his spare time, Caesar advises healthcare startups, cheers on the Warriors, tries various HIIT workouts, and daydreams about what the future of health will look like.


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