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The Aging Brain: Improving Mental Performance in Older Adults

There has been a great deal of progress recently from studies measuring the effects of age on the human brain. While we still have many more questions than we're able to answer, we know that after the age of 30 our brains begin to shrink at a level consistent with declines in cognitive (mental) performance. Although aging brains may still be very capable of functioning as they always have, the rate of learning and processing information slows down. Many of us will begin to develop mild cognitive impairments exhibited by increased instances of memory failure, difficulty remembering names or misplacing items. Wouldn't it be convenient if on our 30th birthdays we could simply begin taking an anti-aging pill to protect our brains from further decline? Unfortunately, scientists have yet to develop such a product. Until they do, however, there are ways we can improve the odds of preserving and enhancing our mental capabilities as we age.
Some of the most significant studies on the brain over the past 15 years have focused on the correlation between aerobic exercise and brain density. It is now common knowledge that physical fitness in older adults slows down the decline in brain density and that consistent aerobic exercise actually restores lost brain volume from natural aging. So how does brain volume improve mental performance? Exercise increases oxygen and blood flow, creating a fertile environment for cell regeneration in certain areas of the brain. Restoring brain volume in these locations can lead to improved mental performance in such areas as attention, organization and multi-tasking. While it is still being determined how much exercise is needed to affect cognitive performance, it has been concluded in at least one study that any frequency of moderate exercise performed later in life can reduce the odds of developing mild cognitive impairment.1

Sleep well 
As we age, it becomes more difficult to get our optimal amount of sleep regularly. Nearly half of all people over 65 years of age experience some form of frequent sleeping problems. There are many causes for sleep deprivation including reaction to medications, physical health problems and increased stress due to changes in lifestyle and family dynamics. As challenging as it may be, the optimal amount of sleep needed for older adults remains the same as in early adulthood, generally between six to nine hours each day.

Eat Healthy 
Food is fuel for our bodies, creating energy that we need for both mental and physical performance. By regularly fueling with healthy foods, we're able to optimize our mental performance while avoiding the physical ups and downs that lead to dieting. Dieting has almost become a norm within our culture and is usually unnecessary if we incorporate the right kinds of foods into our lives. Almost daily it seems there is new scientific evidence reporting on the benefits of certain foods. Some of those most beneficial toward improving our mental abilities include the following: Blueberries, dark leafy vegetables, wild salmon, walnuts, green tea and low fat yogurt

Humans are naturally social, but may become more isolated through retirement and when children grow and begin families of their own. With social circles becoming smaller, we often become very sedentary. Socializing at any age can be very uneasy and often stressful, however, these challenges of interaction sharpen the brain's abilities when responding to stimuli from others.

People read for several reasons; education, entertainment, or sometimes to help fall asleep. Whatever the reason, reading engages the brain by forcing greater concentration. The brain also must infer larger amounts of information in order to give greater meaning to simple sentences.

Play Games 
A search for "brain games" on the internet reveals the multi-million dollar industry of computer programs claiming the cognitive benefits of their products. Many older adults, however, are intimidated with computers or may need assistance from an outside program to engage them. Perhaps the most beneficial games for the aging brain are traditional board games like Scrabble, Monopoly, and Checkers which challenge the brain in a strategic sense, and encourage social interaction at the same time.

1- Geda, Y.E, Roberts, R.O., Knopman, D.S., Christianson, T.J., Pankratz, V.S., 
Ivnik, R.J., Boeve, B.F., Tangalos, E.G., Petersen, R.C., Rocca W.A. (Jan 2010). 
Physical exercise, aging, and mild cognitive impairment: a population-based study. 
Archives of Neurology. Retrieved from

Steve Kurtz has an MBA degree with a concentration in marketing. He also has experience developing lifestyle programs for older adults at Cardinal Retirement Village in Cuyahoga Falls, OH. Steve recently developed a blog on his company's website designed to help inform aging adults and their families on a wide range of topics. To view other articles from Steve or to visit the Cardinal website, visit


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