If you’ve noticed occasional memory glitches or lapses in attention as the years go by, you’re not alone. Most of us – even doctors – have good-naturedly ribbed each other about so-called “senior moments.”
As our brains age, they don’t work as efficiently as they once did, leading to cognitive decline. Our brains change more than any other organ in our body, and as we reach our golden years these changes occur more rapidly. Many of us start noticing differences in cognitive skills like memory, attention, and the ability to learn that negatively affect quality of life.
As a physician at Aviv Clinics, I regularly work with clients who want to improve their brain performance and increase their healthspan, or the number of years they live free of age-related illness. Everyone wants more quality years with their loved ones and today, maintaining your cognitive health is possible.
Some cognitive decline is natural.
Our brains begin shrinking as we age, starting earlier than people may think. In our 40s, our brain volume begins decreasing, primarily in the frontal lobe and hippocampus, the areas of the brain responsible for memory, attention, learning, problem-solving, and personality.
Additionally, our bodies become less efficient at dispersing oxygen, which our organs and brain need to function optimally. Our blood vessels can weaken, narrow, or become blocked, limiting blood and oxygen flow. Even though the brain only accounts for 2% of our total mass, it requires 20% of the oxygenated blood pumping through our body.
These natural aging processes cause brain function to decline. What can we do about it?
Maintain brain health with a comprehensive plan:
Eat Brain-Healthy Foods
Gut health directly correlates to brain health. There are trillions of microbes, known as gut flora, that live in our guts and they play a key role in overall health. These microbes work in tandem with other organ systems, meaning the gut can impact or even prevent health conditions including autoimmune disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, cancer, and behavioral concerns.
Gut bacteria also produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which strongly influence mental processes, behavioral patterns, and mood. The gut also produces short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) that impact our immune response and inflammation. Malfunctioning SCFAs can contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders and neurodegenerative diseases.
I recommend the MIND diet, a nutrition plan specifically designed to delay the onset of cognitive decline. MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay and combines two popular diet plans. The MIND diet is full of brain foods, including berries, nuts, olive oil, whole grains, and beans. It is also high in omega-3 fatty acids to strengthen brain cell structure, flavonoids for improving blood flow, and antioxidants to reduce the buildup of plaques. Its high-fiber and prebiotic foods encourage SCFA production.
When appropriate, we also encourage clients to follow an intermittent fasting plan. When you eat can be as important as what you eat. Research shows that time-restricted feeding can decrease age-related frailty, slow cellular damage, fight inflammation, and reduce the risk of chronic illnesses like diabetes.
Exercise—both aerobic and strength training—is also directly connected to brain health. Cardiovascular exercise gets our blood pumping and feeds our brains with the oxygen-rich blood it needs for cognitive performance. Our physiology team’s ‘prescription’ for aging adults is moderate-intensity exercise for 30-45 minutes, three to four times per week.
During moderate-intensity exercise, our heart rate performs at 70-80% of its maximum. To find your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. For example, a 70-year-old woman’s maximum heart rate would be 150. To exercise at moderate intensity, she should maintain a heart rate between 105-120 beats per minute.
Strength training is also highly beneficial to brain health. Weight and resistance training have been found to prevent hippocampus shrinkage, improving memory and executive function. Muscle-building exercises can also help older adults support bone density, improve balance, and reduce frailty.
It’s important to choose activities that are not too complex but are still challenging and to allow rest days in between strength training activities. The goal is to activate as many muscle groups within a week as possible. Of course, no matter what type of exercise program you begin, consult with a physician first, and warm up and cool down properly before and after each session.
Stay Mentally and Socially Active
Taking time for mentally stimulating activities can also slow the process of age-related cognitive decline. Exercise your brain regularly by learning new skills, pursuing creative outlets like painting or writing, or playing challenging logic and memory games like crosswords or sudoku. Our clients participate in daily training designed to exercise their cognitive skills. Programs and apps such as BrainHQ can help you challenge yourself daily.
Additionally, spending time with others keeps our brains active and alert. Research has shown that strong social ties are crucial to brain health, keeping our brains agile and strengthening our neural networks. Scientists have found that people who are socially isolated experience higher rates of stress, depression, chronic illnesses, and dementia when compared with those who are socially connected.
Evidence shows that adopting a healthy dietary plan, improving physical fitness, and staying mentally and socially active can slow age-related cognitive and physical decline. Although it’s never too late to improve our habits, the sooner we start, the more healthy years we’ll be able to enjoy.
We take a similar multidisciplinary approach to helping our clients improve their brain and body health and quality of life. The Aviv Medical Program begins with an extensive physical, cognitive, and medical assessment, including high-resolution brain imaging, for a full picture of each client’s health. From there, we create a personalized treatment plan that can include nutrition coaching, physical therapy, cognitive training, and a unique hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) protocol.
Why hyperbaric oxygen? Peer-reviewed, published research shows that the HBOT protocol we use encourages the growth of new blood vessels and neurons, improves blood flow to the brain, and inhibits the ravages of cellular aging. Scientific evidence indicates that our HBOT protocol can even reverse key aging biomarkers. After completing our program, 96% of our clients experience clinically verifiable improvements in brain function, even two years after completing the program.
Unlike other clinics that offer hyperbaric oxygen therapy, our program is comprehensive and HBOT sessions take place in spacious multi-person chambers where clients are free to socialize, build relationships, and even participate in cognitive exercises during treatment. In fact, many of our clients forge friendships, start book clubs, and even travel together after completing the program.
The scientific conversation around aging, longevity, and healthspan is continually evolving. Advancements in therapies, such as hyperbaric oxygen, are preventing, and even reversing, age-related cognitive and physical decline. The multi-person chambers allow the medical team to use a specific oxygen fluctuation protocol that has been scientifically proven to reverse two key biomarkers of aging.
It’s important to be proactive with your cognitive health. Focusing on the health of your brain and body today will bring rewards tomorrow in the form of improved healthspan and quality of life. You’re never too young or too old to start aging better.