En español | Brain health is a hot topic among older adults and for good reason. About 50 million people around the globe are living with dementia; by 2030 that number is expected to hit 82 million, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
While dementia risk increases with age, it's important to note that the disease is not an inevitable part of the aging process. Many people live into their 90s and beyond without significant declines in thinking and behavior, according to the National Institute on Aging. And you have more control than you may think when it comes to mitigating your risk.
"There's no guarantee that you won't get dementia, but you can significantly increase your odds of getting a better result,” says Sarah Lenz Lock, senior vice president for policy at AARP. Lock is also executive director of the AARP-founded Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), which for five years has been convening experts and publishing reports that equip people with actionable and scientifically grounded information on the aging brain, including ways to maintain and improve brain health throughout adulthood.
Along the way, the GCBH has debunked many myths and misconceptions on the aging brain. Here are five from the council's recent reports.
Myth 1: Diet and exercise are good for heart health but don't do much for the brain.
Truth: What's good for your heart is also good for your brain. A recent GCBH report found that managing high blood pressure, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly all provide serious cardiovascular and brain benefits. One reason: The brain is a vascular organ and “both healthy blood vessel walls and strong blood flow are crucial for a healthy brain,” the council explains.
Staying physically active and maintaining a healthy weight are two ways to keep your blood vessels and blood flow healthy, the report states. Also, avoid smoking and keep your cholesterol levels in check to help preserve brain health as you age.
Myth 2: A robust regimen of supplements can keep you sharp as you age.
Truth: Everybody needs vitamins and minerals to maintain good health, including the health of the gray matter, but bottles of supplements that boast of brain-boosting benefits aren't the answer. The GCBH found that there is insufficient evidence that multivitamins improve brain health and that, for most people, the nutrients needed for an active and healthy brain can be acquired through food. (Bonus: There's a GCBH report dedicated to the subject of brain food, in which a diet rich in berries, nuts, veggies and fish is encouraged.)
"Very few supplements have been carefully studied for their effect on brain health. For the handful that have been researched, several well-designed studies of supplements for brain health found no benefit in people with normal nutrient levels,” the GCBH report states.
If you are worried that you are nutrient deficient, talk with your doctor; a supplement regimen may be in order. Just be sure to mention all other medications you take.
Myth 3: Brain games work out the brain and ward off mental decline.
Truth: So-called brain games may be fun, but the evidence that they can maintain or improve brain health is weak to nonexistent, according to the GCBH. That said, there are plenty of intellectually stimulating activities that can help you stay sharp. Learning a new skill and staying socially engaged are good for an aging brain, experts say. The same goes for volunteering in the community and reengaging in activities you once found challenging. Whether it's a new language you've been itching to master or a new instrument you've wanted to pick up (music comes with its own boon for the brain), don't delay. “The younger you start challenging yourself with cognitively stimulating activities, the better your brain function will be as you age,” the report states.
Myth 4: It's normal for older adults to get confused in the hospital, and it's temporary.
Truth: Delirium — a sudden change in thinking and behavior — is a common complication among older hospitalized patients that can have a lasting impact on brain health. It has been associated with falls and linked to worsening dementia and depression and anxiety.
A recent GCBH report found that the condition affects as many as half of all Americans 65 and older after a hospital admission. There are ways to prevent delirium, however. (Experts say it's preventable in up to 40 percent of cases.) Preparing for surgery like you would for an athletic event with a good diet, exercise and sleep can help keep the complication at bay. So can maintaining a sleep-wake cycle that's as close to normal as possible during your hospital stay. Caregivers and health care providers also play an important role in preventing delirium. Indeed, the GCBH suggests they do preadmission screenings and make sure patients are not overmedicated.
Myth 5: Your mood has little to do with your mind.
Truth: Mental well-being is related to brain health as you age. In fact, a GCBH report found that greater mental well-being (feeling good, functioning well and coping with life circumstances and challenges) is associated with reduced dementia risks, but poor mental well-being (pessimism or not feeling useful, for example) may interfere with a person's ability “to think and reason, as well as how they interact with others and regulate their emotions.” Identifying and engaging in activities you enjoy and maintaining meaningful relationships with family and friends can help you keep your brain healthy.