You want golden years. You don’t want cognitive decline to slow you down. It may be a later stage of your life, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still be sharp mentally. Learning new skills, making new memories, and enjoying the activities you always have is still an option. So how can you protect your brain health as you age? A part of the puzzle is exercise. Research has shown that physical activity can protect your cognition and brain health and reduce signs of an aging brain.
In this article, I want to discuss the importance of brain health and what is normal aging of the brain. I will go over the benefits of exercise, then get into recent research on the connection between the aging brain and exercise. I will recommend some strategies for physical activity for brain health and other dietary and lifestyle strategies to protect your brain function.
The Importance of Brain Health
Your brain is one of your most important organs. Just like the processor in your computer, your brain processes important information, carries out commands, and controls key functions in your body. It is in touch with every part of your body, from cells to organs, and affects every part of your health.
Your brain is in touch with your gut through the gut-brain axis, which is essential for your intestinal and nervous system health. Your brain supports mobility, coordination, balance, and movement. It’s critical for language, thinking, memory, problem-solving abilities, creative behavior, and emotional health. A healthy brain is essential for good cognitive skills, emotional and mental health, social connections, and overall vitality (1, 2).
The Aging Brain: What’s Normal
As you age, your body will change. This is true for your brain too. As you age, certain parts of your brain, especially the ones related to learning and other complex mental tasks, will shrink a little. The communication between neurons may not be as fast and effective as it once was. Blood flow in your brain may also decrease (3, 4).
You may notice some gradual changes as you age. Normal brain aging may mean that you experience signs of slower processing speed or more difficulty multitasking than when you were younger. Your ability to pay attention may also change. However, your knowledge, memory, and other skills will remain stable despite your age. Sure, you may forget where you put your keys and minor things like that occasionally (3, 4).
But these changes should be mild. Healthy older adults can still form new memories, learn new skills, improve their vocabulary and language skills, and enjoy activities that they enjoyed throughout their lives. Experiencing signs of dementia is not a normal part of aging (3, 4).
Dementia is a neurodegenerative condition characterized by persistent and progressive loss of brain functioning, including impaired memory, thinking, and other cognitive abilities, and personality changes. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. In Alzheimer’s disease, normal neural communication is interrupted, which causes loss of function, cellular death, and neurodegeneration. Symptoms worsen over time, eventually leading to a complete loss of ability to take care of daily tasks, a loss of independence, and eventually, death (5).
According to Alzheimer’s Disease International, someone develops dementia every 3 seconds. There are over 55 million people worldwide living with dementia. The numbers are only growing. By 2030 we are predicted to reach 78 million with dementia worldwide and 139 million by 2050 (6).
I bet you don’t want to be part of these statistics. You want to keep your brain as healthy as possible as you age. Not only do you want to reduce your risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, you also want to stay as sharp as you can. You want to be able to enjoy the activities you always did and even learn new skills during your retirement years. There are many healthy habits you can practice to protect your brain health. Exercise is one of them.
Health Benefits of Exercise
Before I get into the connection between the aging brain and exercise, I want to go over some of the main health benefits of exercise. Moving your body offers way more than just a boost in brain health.
The potential health benefits of exercise may include:
- Reduced stress, improved mood, and better mental health (7, 8, 9)
- Reduced risk of obesity and easier weight loss, fat loss, muscle building, and weight maintenance (10, 11, 12, 13)
- Improved muscle health, muscle strength, and bone health and reduced risk of muscle and bone loss (14, 15, 16)
- Increased energy, reduced fatigue, and better sleep (17, 18, 19)
- Reduced risk of chronic health issues, including insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and cancer (20, 21, 22, 23)
- Improved skin health (24)
- Lower pain levels and better quality of life with chronic pain and chronic health issues (25, 26, 27)
- Improved hormonal health and better sexual function (28, 29, 30, 31)
- Better brain health, reduced brain inflammation, and improved cognition, memory, and mental fitness (32, 33, 34)
The Aging Brain and Exercise
Exercise is important for anyone at any age. Exercise is particularly important to prevent signs of an aging brain. Let’s learn about the connection between the aging brain and exercise.
In recent years, there has been an increasing amount of research evidence suggesting that exercise is incredibly beneficial and important for your brain health. According to a 2018 review published in Frontiers in Psychology, physical exercise may improve brain plasticity, cognitive functioning, mental health, and overall well-being (36).
Another 2018 review published in Neurology Clinical Practice has found that exercise, including aerobic exercise, resistance training, and mind-body exercises, may improve cognitive performance in older adults (37). Researchers found that the benefits of exercise were evident whether participants had or didn’t have any cognitive impairments.
According to a 2020 study published in Preventative Medicine, cognitive decline in adults over 45 is about twice as common in people who tend to be inactive than in those that exercise (38). According to a 2022 study published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia, late-life physical activity may help to improve brain tissue synaptic integrity and support age-related brain health in older adults (39). Another 2022 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience has found that physical activity may improve cognition and reduce the risk of neurodegeneration by decreasing pro-inflammatory microglial states in older individuals (40).
New Research on the Aging Brain and Exercise
Finally, there is a very recent study on the aging brain and exercise. A 2023 study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry looked at how exercise throughout adulthood may affect cognitive function later in life (41). They looked at the effects of timing, frequency, and maintenance of exercise habits over 30 years in adulthood.
Researchers looked at the exercise habits and cognitive function of 1417 individuals (53% female) who were born in 1946 in Great Britain. They looked at their physical activity level and habits between ages 36 and 69 based on the following 3 categories: not active (no physical activity at all), moderately active (participated in physical activity 1 to 4 times a month), and most actives (participated in physical activity 5 or more times per month). Researchers assessed the cognitive abilities of participants through the Addenbrooke’s Cognitive Examination-III), their verbal memory with the help of a word learning test, and their processing speed through visual search speed.
Results showed that being physically active throughout adulthood was linked to higher cognitive abilities at age 69. The cognitive state and verbal memory were similar among the groups that exercised moderately and the most physically active. What’s more interesting is that maintaining exercise habits was even more important than the amount of exercise practiced at one time. Researchers found a “strong association between sustained cumulative physical activity and later life cognitive state” (41).
Overall, they found that being physically active at any time during your adult life can have a positive impact on your cognitive state later in life. However, maintaining physical activity throughout your life is the most ideal and may offer the best benefits for cognitive health and function in older adulthood.
Researchers found that these results were independent of mental health and cardiovascular health, though somewhat influenced by childhood cognition and education, suggesting that the importance of education also plays a role in cognitive function along with physical activity.
Recommendations for Brain Health
As you just learned, exercise is incredibly important for your brain health. You can do much more to protect your health. So let’s look at some of the best things you can do for your brain health.
Exercise for Brain Health
Here are my movement and exercise tips for brain health:
I recommend moving your body throughout the day. Start your day with a short stretch, some yoga moves, or, if you can, a walk outside. Get up and stretch regularly throughout the day. Go for a walk, play with your pets, kids, or grandkids, take the stairs instead of the elevator, dance to your favorite song, and find other creative ways to sneak some movement in.
Aim to exercise at least 5 days a week for 20-30 mins each session. Try a mix of cardiovascular and resistance training exercises. Walking, hiking, biking, swimming, jogging, rebounding, and dancing are great cardiovascular exercises. Body weight workouts, weight lifting with free weights or weight machines, TRX resistance bands, kettlebell training, and CrossFit are great for strength and resistance training. Yoga, pilates, and barre workouts are low-impact and are great for resistance training, strength, and flexibility.
The style and level of exercise may differ based on your age, fitness, health, and personal preferences. If you are older, dealing with health issues, or injured, you may have to choose lower impact. Swimming, water group fitness classes, slow yoga style, such as yin yoga, Nordic walking, and senior fitness classes may be great options for older individuals. Working with a physical therapist can be incredibly beneficial if you are dealing with health challenges or injuries, or are simply new to exercise.
Be patient with yourself. Start where you are instead of pushing yourself too much. Increase your activities gradually and safely. Don’t compare yourself to other people. Listen to your body. And remember, no matter what your age or health is like, it’s never too late to start.
Other Tips for Brain Health
Other recommendations to protect your brain health:
1. Follow a healthy, anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense whole foods diet (42).
Remove inflammatory foods, including refined sugar, refined oil, artificial ingredients, additives, food sensitivities, food allergens, junk food, and overly processed food. Eat lots of organic greens, vegetables, sprouts, fruits, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, and organic animal protein. I also recommend checking out this article on the best diet for brain health.
2. Reduce your stress levels and learn stress management strategies (43).
Try meditation, mindfulness strategies, guided relaxation, breathwork, journaling, and a gratitude practice. Work with a therapist or counselor if you have anxiety, depression, trauma, or any other issues you need professional support or a listening ear.
3. Practice healthy sleep habits (44).
Avoid electronics, stress, and heavy foods late at night. Try reading, meditation, journaling, coloring, or positive family time instead. Aim to get 7 to 9 hours of restorative sleep at night.
4. Support your gut health.
Your brain and gut health are connected through the gut-brain axis (45). Eat probiotic-rich fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, coconut kefir, coconut yogurt, and kombucha, and probiotic-supporting prebiotic foods, including apples, bananas, leek, garlic, onion, asparagus, jicama, and Jerusalem artichokes. Take a daily probiotic supplement.
5. Reduce your environmental toxin exposure (46).
Avoid conventional toxin-filled cleaning, personal hygiene, body, and beauty products. Choose organic, natural, and DIY alternatives instead. Use a high-quality indoor HEPA air filtration system and drink purified water instead of tap. Check your home for mold and remove any mold if there is any. Avoid the use of plastic. Avoid exposure to toxic metals. Lead and mercury are known neurotoxins. Stop or avoid smoking and second-hand smoke.
6. Try neurobic exercises.
They can help to improve and maintain memory and other cognitive functions through old age (47). Crossword puzzles, board games, puzzles, coloring, journaling, learning a new instrument, learning a new language, reciting a speech, handwriting instead of typing, trying a new hobby, and learning a new skill are great ways to challenge your brain health and keep it young.
7. Try some supplements for brain health.
Magnesium may help to improve relaxation, sleep, healthy energy levels, and brain health (48). B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, L-theanine, and vitamin E may also support brain function (49, 50, 51, 52). Ginger, turmeric, resveratrol, quercetin, and EGCG may help to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress and support brain autophagy and brain health (53, 54, 55, 56, 57).
If you want to improve your brain health and keep it young as you age, I recommend that you speak with your doctors first for more personalized health information and support. I invite you to schedule a consultation with me here to see if you can benefit from the strategies listed in this article.
If you are dealing with any chronic health issues, for advice on how to improve your nutrition and health, I welcome you to start a functional medicine consultation with me for further personalized guidance. You may book your consultation here.
Check out my Histamine Intolerance Course here. Learn on your own time, from anywhere. Get an inside look at the most helpful functional medicine tests for pinpointing imbalances, ways to identify and manage the most common (and sometimes surprising) mast cell triggers, and learn what to eat, what to avoid, and why.