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How To Keep Your Brain Healthy As You Age—Whether You’re 23 or 93—According to a Neuropsychologist

Photo: Stocksy/Tatiana Timofeeva
While preventing cognitive decline isn't 100 percent in anyone's control, it is empowering to know that there are a heck of a lot of daily habits that work to support brain health when put into practice consistently. More good news? It's never too early or late to implement them.

As a neuropsychologist, UCLA adjunct assistant professor, and Alzheimer's disease expert, it's something Mirella Díaz-Santos, PhD, loves educating people about. While habits that support long-term cognitive health are beneficial at every age, Dr. Díaz-Santos does have specific tips for how to keep your brain healthy depending on what stage of life you're in. The brain-healthy habits of a parent in their 30s can look a bit different than someone in their 60s. How so? Here, Dr. Díaz-Santos explains exactly how to keep your brain healthy as you age decade by decade. Keep reading to see her advice.

How to keep your brain healthy as you age

If you're in your 20s:

For many people in their 20s, this is the time of life when they're living on their own for the first time. Figuring out what to feed yourself, what time you're going to go to bed, and what you want to devote your free time to are all up to you—and they can set the tone for how you live in the decades beyond your twenties, too. "This time of life can be overwhelming, so if you're feeling anxious, it's important to seek help," Dr. Díaz-Santos says. She explains that when anxiety is left untreated, it can impact brain health. Scientific studies have shown that prolonged anxiety is correlated with cognitive decline and dementia later in life.

On the food front, Dr. Díaz-Santos recommends prioritizing veggies, fruit, protein, fiber, and healthy fats—all of which are linked to supporting brain health both in the short- and long-term. "You also want to make sure to drink plenty of water—surviving on coffee alone isn't enough!" she says. (Although, coffee does boast its own brain health benefits.) Not drinking enough water can impair brain function, so if you are regularly experiencing brain fog, it could be a sign that you aren't drinking enough.

For many, their 20s has a major work-hard-play-hard vibe, but Dr. Díaz-Santos says it's important to get enough sleep. Not getting enough sleep long-term is another predictor for dementia. Aim for between five-and-a-half hours and eight hours a night.

The last big nugget of brain health intel Dr. Díaz-Santos wants everyone in their twenties to know is that social connection is important, so prioritize your friendships. "We take for granted the power of friendships, but being part of a community and having a sense of belonging is really important," she says. She adds that the pandemic has made maintaining social ties tricker, so finding safe ways to connect with others is especially important now. "Make time to call your friends. It's not just good for the soul; it's good for your brain, too," Dr. Díaz-Santos says.

If you're in your 30s or 40s:

While for many people, their 20s were focused solely on themselves, once you're in your 30s and 40s, other people may start demanding your attention. This is the time of life when many people enter long-term partnerships or have children. Something to celebrate? Totally. Draining as heck? Also yes. "A lot of people in their 30s and 40s—especially women—feel the impact of stress in their entire bodies, including the brain," Dr. Díaz-Santos says. "One of the biggest health conditions that affect midlife is hypertension, which is correlated with both stress and diet."

Hypertension doesn't just affect the heart; it's correlated with cognitive decline, too. The same diet and lifestyle habits that protect your heart also protect your brain; they are intricately linked. Because of this, Dr. Díaz-Santos says it's important to nourish yourself through nutrient-rich foods (the same ones she called out for prioritizing in your 20s) and stress management. She 100 percent acknowledges that this may be more difficult to do in your 30s and 40s than in your 20s—particularly if you are a parent—but your brain health depends on it. "Managing stress can be something as simple as going for a walk," she says. "It doesn't have to be something time-consuming."

If you're in your 50s or 60s:

There is still plenty of life to be lived after your 50s and 60s, but these are the decades when Early-Onset Alzheimer's can occur, so it's important to be aware of the signs. (Early-Onset Alzheimer's can occur in someone's 30s or 40s as well, though it is rarer.) Dr. Díaz-Santos says that the biggest symptom is memory loss. For example, routinely misplacing items, losing track of how you got somewhere, not remembering the date or time of year, or trouble solving basic problems such as following a recipe or paying a bill. If you are routinely experiencing these issues, consider scheduling an appointment with a neurologist.

"What's important in your 50s and 60s—and beyond—is doing everything in your power to protect and develop the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain in charge of memory," Dr. Díaz-Santo says. Her best advice for this? Continue challenging yourself to learn something new. Whether it's a new language, a musical instrument, or even a type of physical activity, this will keep brain cells on their A-game. One scientific study found that when people ages 59 to 79 spent four months learning a new language, it led to more neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning).

In your 70s and beyond:

All of Dr. Díaz-Santos's advice so far is still relevant in your 70s and beyond. Eating nutrient-rich foods, getting enough sleep, managing stress, being aware of the signs of dementia, and learning new skills all apply. But there is something else she specifically calls out for people in this life stage: maintaining strong relationships and social ties.

Remember how Dr. Díaz-Santos pointed out how important friendships and a sense of belonging were in your 20s? This is important in every decade but older adults are at an increased risk of loneliness and social isolation—and that's without factoring in a global pandemic. This is not only linked to depression but also increases the risk of dementia. Spending time with family and friends is especially important later in life. If you don't feel safe meeting in person, consider joining virtual clubs related to your interests and setting aside time each day to call family and friends.

What Dr. Díaz-Santos also wants people in their 70s and older to know is that it's never too late to start implementing brain-supporting habits. "Your brain can always benefit from little changes, so never underestimate their power!" she says.

Again, it bears repeating that no one can 100 percent control their cognitive health. But focusing on what you can control can make a difference—and you're never too young or too old to start.

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