Taking Care of Your Brain Health as You Get Older

As you get older, it’s normal to experience mild memory loss. But for some people, serious memory loss can be a sign of dementia, a loss of brain function that affects the ability to do everyday activities. Dementia can have different causes, but by taking care of your health, you can help decrease your risk for developing dementia as you get older.  

“If the body itself is not healthy and has other health problems, that is going to affect how the brain functions,” says Matthew Fink, M.D., neurologist-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. “So, to preserve your brain and keep it healthy, the important thing is to keep the rest of your body healthy.” 

The Difference Between Dementia and Normal Memory Loss 

Many people wonder how to tell when memory loss is something to be concerned about. You might worry when you repeatedly lose your wallet or have trouble recalling information as quickly as you once did. But some degree of memory loss is a normal part of the aging process.  

“Not being able to find your keys or forgetting where you parked your car is not dementia,” Dr. Fink says. “But if you don’t know what to do with your keys or you forget how to drive your car, it’s interfering with your ability to manage daily activities. That’s when we get concerned.” 

While dementia is a general term that refers to failing brain function that affects your ability to perform tasks of daily living, it has many different causes. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. Another common form is vascular dementia, brought on by mini strokes that block blood flow and lead to progressive loss of brain function. Other causes include Parkinson’s disease and other conditions. 

Additional factors can cause symptoms similar to dementia. These include side effects from certain medications, such as sleeping pills, and other medical conditions, such as hypothyroidism and liver disease.  

Keeping Your Brain Healthy 

Although researchers don’t yet know for certain if dementia can be prevented, following a healthy lifestyle can help reduce risk factors.  

“This means healthy diet and regular exercise, as well as stimulating your brain with lots of mental activity and social interaction,” Dr. Fink says. “There are also other illnesses that can have a major effect on brain health, such as high blood pressure, which is the number one risk factor for stroke. That one issue can make the difference between living a long and healthy life or developing dementia as you get older.” 

Dr. Fink recommends adopting healthy habits, such as avoiding foods that contain processed carbohydrates and eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and small portions of lean meats. In addition, regular exercise allows your muscles to release a chemical into your blood that helps the brain function better.   

If you are concerned about memory loss, visit your primary care physician, who can help uncover the cause of symptoms and determine whether additional testing or a referral to a neurologist is necessary.  

Concerned about your brain health? Find a doctor at Weill Cornell Medicine.