How to Promote Brain Health:The Healthy Aging Checklist, Part 1

Aging brain

“Doctor, what do you recommend for healthy aging?”

“My mom is getting older and I want to help her stay healthy. What should we be doing?”

On this site, I usually write about how to manage or avoid specific aging health challenges. But in real life, I often get asked the questions above. After all, many people want advice on how to be healthier, or stay healthy.

That’s because we all intuitively know that maintaining good health is key to maintaining what is most important to us as we age: our ability to be physically and mentally capable, so that we can remain active, engaged in our lives, and as independent as possible.

We also know that poor health can bring on pain and other symptoms, as well as disabilities that can jeopardize how we live our usual lives. In fact, most “aging” problems that seniors and families struggle with — like difficulties with mobility, memory, or independence —  track back to underlying health problems.

So it’s good to know how to maintain one’s health as one ages, in order to keep our minds and bodies working well for as long as possible.

Furthermore, healthy aging isn’t just about forestalling aging or disability. It’s also about knowing how to make the best of things even once you do have chronic diseases or chronic disabilities of the mind or body. I call this optimizing health, for better health while aging.

It means optimizing one’s health — and health care — so that the brain and body work at their best for now and for the future. And the beauty of this is that the same key things work, whether you are a “healthy” older person with no particular health problems versus someone who has chronic conditions or even an “uncurable” disabling disease such as Alzheimer’s.

In this series of posts, I’m going to tell you how to do this.

The Healthy Aging Checklist

For the healthiest aging, do this:

There you have it. If you do those six things for your older relative — or for yourself — you’ll have set up an excellent foundation for optimizing health right now, preventing or delaying health problems, and being prepared to better navigate the future emergencies and health declines that will probably crop up.

You may be wondering just how to implement each item.  So, I’m creating a cheatsheet for each part, and I’ll cover each of them in an article.

Like everything I suggest, it’s based on the approach I take with patients when I practice, and it’s grounded in the geriatrics approach to healthcare for older adults, as well as in clinical research.

In this article, I will cover the most important things to do to promote brain health, and also emotional well-being, which is intimately related to brain health and brain function.

Let’s get to it!

How To Promote Brain Health: 10 Key Things To Do

For better brain health while aging, I recommend you prioritize these ten approaches. There are three unhealthy things to avoid — or at least minimize — and seven healthy things to do.

Note that although it’s ideal to do these before a person develops memory loss or cognitive impairment, these do also promote better brain function in people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another dementia.

Get Your Free Brain Health Cheatsheet! The 10 actions to maintain brain health in a handy PDF checklist that you can print or save. Includes useful resources for each action item. Click here.

1. Avoid brain-slowing medications. 

Why: Several types of commonly-used medications diminish brain function in the short-term and are linked to higher rates of Alzheimer’s in the longer term. Learn to identify these medications, so that you can avoid them, or at least use them only as a last resort when the likely benefits outweigh the risks.

Note: Common health problems often treated with risky medications include anxiety, insomnia, overactive bladder, vertigo, and allergies. (See resources below for more.) In many cases, such problems can effectively be treated with non-drug approaches, or with safer medications.

For more information:

2. Avoid chronic sleep deprivation.

Why: Chronic sleep deprivation can cause irritable mood, worse thinking, and many other problems. Fortunately, most sleep problems can be treated if properly identified.

Note: If you have anxiety or frequent insomnia, it’s very important to learn to sleep without sedatives or sleeping pills. This usually requires a big effort in the short term, but it is worthwhile for long-term brain health and will reduce fall risk as well. Clinical studies have shown that older adults who depend on tranquilizers can successfully wean off of them. (See resources below for links to these studies.)

For More Information:

3. Avoid delirium.

Why: Delirium is a state of worse-than-usual mental function, brought on by some kind of illness or stress. Studies have found that delirium is associated with acceleration of cognitive decline. In older adults, delirium is often brought on by the stress of hospitalization or serious illness. Although not all delirium can be avoided or prevented, seniors and families should be careful about elective surgeries, and can learn ways to reduce the chance of developing delirium. 

For more information:

4. Identify and treat hearing loss as early as possible.

Why: Research shows that hearing loss in midlife and later life is clearly associated with a higher risk of cognitive decline. Experts are still teasing out why this is, but it’s probably in part due to many people cutting back on social engagement when there is untreated hearing loss. We also know that the part of the brain responsible for processing sound and speech (the auditory cortex) starts to wither if it’s not getting used properly. Last but not least, the longer hearing loss has gone untreated, the harder it is for a person to adapt to hearing aids successfully. For these reasons and more, if you’ve noticed any signs of hearing impairment in yourself or a loved one, be sure to check for hearing loss and get treatment with some form of hearing assistance technology.

For more information:

5. Pursue positive social activities, purposeful activities, and whatever activities nourish the soul.

Why: Loneliness and boredom are harmful to brain health and emotional health. Studies find that older adults feel better when they are socially engaged, and also when they feel a sense of purpose. This may also help prevent or delay cognitive decline.

For more information:

6. Find constructive ways to manage chronic stress. 

Why: Chronic stress is an important quality of life issue. It also can change the brain, and has been linked to changes in cognitive function.

Note: To manage chronic stress, it’s best to combine general approaches (such as improving sleep, exercising, meditation, relaxation strategies, etc) with approaches that can help you cope with your specific source of stress, such as caregiving coping skills or relationship counseling.

For more information:

7. Seek treatment if any signs of depression or chronic anxiety.

Why: Although studies find that many people feel happier as they age, it’s still quite common for older adults to experience late-life depression. Chronic anxiety is also common, and can co-exist with depression. These problems diminish quality of life, and also have been linked to cognitive decline. Fortunately, they are treatable.

Note: It’s most common for these problems to be treated with medication. However, a number of non-drug treatments are available for depression and anxiety, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, and these can be as effective as medication. These are often safer for older adults in that there’s less risk of side effects or interactions with any treatment for other health problems, so it’s often worthwhile to ask about non-drug treatments.

For more information:

8. Stay physically active and exercise regularly.

Why: Regular physical activity has been shown to benefit brain health as well as mood. Studies have found that exercise can help treat depression or anxiety, and is also linked to a lower risk of developing a dementia such as Alzheimer’s.

Note: The CDC resource below clarifies how much exercise to get. But research has also shown that even less-than-recommended exercise brings health benefits. So remember: it’s better to do a little bit every day than nothing at all!

For more information:

9. Address risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Why: Cardiovascular disease includes cerebrovascular disease, which means brain health problems related to blood vessels in the brain. Reducing cardiovascular risk factors helps preserve good blood flow to the brain. This reduces the risk of a major stroke, and may help prevent the smaller brain vessel blockages that cause vascular dementia.

The main cardiovascular risk factors to address are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and pre-diabetes, smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. Exercise is a safe and effective way to help treat most of these risk factors, but medications or other approaches may also be necessary.

For more information:

10. Eat a brain-healthy diet that keeps glucose, inflammation, and weight in good control.

For the vast majority of people, this will be the Mediterranean diet or the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet.

Why: Several studies over the past several years have indicated that the Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet are associated with maintaining better cognitive function. They also improve other health outcomes.

The likely reason these diets work well for the brain is that they often help control blood glucose in a healthier range (not too high) and also they reduce inflammation in blood vessels and elsewhere in the body.

The exact specifics of what to eat and not eat on these diets can vary, depending on which diet and which version you find. Here are the general principles:

  • Eat lots of vegetables, greens, fruits, whole grains, beans, and lentils.
  • Minimize added sugars, fast food, and processed foods, including processed meats.
  • Minimize simple starches (e.g. refined flour, most sweets), especially if your bloodwork suggests problems managing blood sugar.
  • Research has also suggested that intake of several specific types of foods may be beneficial to older adults. Some to consider include:

    • Nuts and seeds (especially flaxseed)
    • Foods containing polyphenols, which include olive oil and berries
    • Cocoa and tea
    • Fish, especially oily fish, which contains omega-3 fatty acids. (Randomized control trial data of fish oil supplements often does not find much effect, so supplements may not be as effective.)

Note: The medical literature on dietary vitamins and supplements for cognitive health is mixed. I personally believe it’s more useful to focus on maintaining a diet that is generally healthy for the body, such as the Mediterranean diet, than it is to focus on taking specific foods or vitamins for brain health.

For more information:

One Optional Extra Way to Promote Brain Health

Here is one additional approach you can try, as part of promoting brain health for healthier aging. 

11. Consider brain training games if you enjoy doing them.

Why: Mentally challenging activities have been linked to brain health, and studies have found that older adults can improve certain cognitive abilities through brain-training programs. However, brain-training seems to mainly improve one’s ability to do the brain task that is being practiced, and the overall value of the cognitive improvements has been debated.  Hence, the National Academy of Medicine concluded that brain training is promising but in the absence of more research, one should be cautious about the claims being made by those selling cognitive training programs.

Rather than use a commercial brain-training game, it may be better to incorporate mentally challenging activities into your life, especially if they involve socializing or if they give you a sense of purpose. For instance, activities such as learning to ballroom dance or practicing a foreign language tend to challenge the brain and likely help maintain brain health.

For more information:

For More on Promoting Brain Health & Preventing Cognitive Decline

This article covers my top recommendations. For a more detailed list of ways to prevent cognitive decline, I recommend the Lancet Commission’s excellently researched article: Dementia prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commission.

Along with the recommendations I’ve already included, the Lancet Commission adds avoiding heavy alcohol use, avoiding traumatic head injuries, and reducing exposure to air pollution.

How Are You Doing on Promoting Brain Health & What Will You Do Next?

Don’t panic if you realize you aren’t doing most of the ten things I recommend.

Do, however, give yourself credit for any items you are doing well on. And then make a plan to improve just one thing, and pick one little next step. It might be committing to walk 20 minutes every day. Or scheduling an appointment with the pharmacist to review medications.

Whatever it is, pick one thing and schedule it. And then commit to reviewing the cheatsheet and taking one more action next month.

If you take an action at least once a month, you’ll eventually be on track for maintaining better brain health while aging.

Get Your Free Brain Health Cheatsheet! The 10 actions to maintain brain health in a handy PDF checklist that you can print or save. Includes useful resources for each action item. Click here.
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