Sharp as a Tack: How to Maintain Your Aging Loved One’s Brain Health

Local experts explain how certain habits can affect your loved one's brain health as they age and over advice on keeping mentally fit.

The research is clear – there are steps that can be taken, at any stage of life, to keep the brain healthy and even prevent or delay the onset of cognitive decline.

Jean Barnas, program services director for the Michigan chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, says she is excited by the volume of research happening right now on this very topic.

“The evidence indicates that you can reduce the risk of cognitive decline by making modifiable lifestyle changes,” she says. “A big part of that is lowering your blood pressure whether through diet, exercise or taking a blood pressure medication.”

Rita Guerreiro, an associate professor of neurodegenerative science at the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, concurs.

“The most important thing is for people to recognize that what they eat and what they do in their daily life really matters,” she says. “Keep your sugar low, don’t eat too many fats. Exercise and keep yourself active at all levels.”

One of those levels includes social engagement.

“Being engaged socially can reduce the rate of depression, support brain health and possibly even delay the onset of dementia,” Barnas says.

She suggests activities like volunteering, joining a book club or taking regular socially distanced walks with friends.

When it comes to taking supplements for preventing or slowing the onset of cognitive decline, Dr. Julie Bynum, professor of Internal Medicine, Division of Geriatric & Palliative Medicine at the University of Michigan Health System, says the evidence just isn’t there.

“I can’t tell you that I know that they harm,” she says. “I do know that they hurt your wallet though. Your money might be better used on a gym membership. The basic story is that if it’s good for your heart, it’s good for your brain.”

She points to the many older, yet healthy skiers and hikers whom she encountered during her time living and working in Vermont.

“These are people who spent their entire life hiking and skiing,” she notes. “They would then come to me at age 85 still actively hiking. That speaks to having a lifestyle of activity.”

Bynum notes that having an adaptability mindset also helps people age well.

“Those people still hiking in their 80s are not doing the big mountains now, but the smaller ones,” she says. “They’re adapting what they do to their current capabilities.”

Another important piece of keeping your brain healthy is undertaking mentally challenging activities, Barnas says.

“Try learning another language, playing a new instrument or picking up a new hobby,” she suggests. “These types of activities have real short- and long-term benefits for your brain by keeping your mind active.”

In its “10 Ways to Love Your Brain” tips, the Alzheimer’s Association notes that formal education, at any stage of life, can help lower risk of cognitive decline and encourages taking a class at local college, community center or online.

Barnas says not to overlook the simple, yet important, steps people can take every day to protect their head from trauma.

“We know so much more now about how brain injury can raise one’s risk of cognitive decline,” she notes, pointing to research linking chronic traumatic head injuries in NFL football players to an increased risk of dementia. “Things like wearing your seatbelt and a helmet while you bike are so important to brain health.”

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