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Reduce the effects of cognitive aging: your brain ages along with your body, but you can take measures to slow its natural decline.

Your brain undergoes physical changes as you age, just like any other part of your body. While your cognitive skills may wane somewhat, it is not always a cause for concern.

"Normal, age-related changes, such as trouble recalling names or walking into a room and not remembering what you came for, can be frustrating, but they do not interfere with your ability to function independently," says Lisa D. Ravdin, PhD, director of the Weill Cornell Neuropsychology Service. "Cognitive aging is an ongoing health issue, but there are ways women can manage, slow, and even reverse its effect."

Your brain as you age

Physiological changes to your brain may occur in varying degrees of severity. These include:

* Shrinking in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus

* Loss of communication between neurons and neurotransmitters

* Narrowing of the brain's blood vessels and reduced growth of new capillaries.

"All of these can impede cognitive efficiency, such as speed of information processing, word retrieval, and the ability to formulate plans," says Dr. Ravdin.

However, these changes do not automatically lead to more serious cognitive impairments, such as Alzheimer's disease or dementia. Nor does cognitive aging affect everyone the same way: Some decreased brain functions are predictable, such as memory and reaction time, whereas others may never change, like knowledge of important facts.

Maintain your brain

The Institute of Medicine recently released a report that outlined three steps people can take to maintain brain health and reduce the effects of cognitive aging.

Be physically active. Regular exercise can reduce harmful inflammation and stimulate the release of hormones that promote new brain cell growth and help weak neurons survive. A 2014 study found that older adults who engaged in physical activity at least twice a week during midlife had a lower risk of dementia later in life than those who were less active. A combination of aerobic and resistance training appears to work best, but any type of exercise moves your brain in the right direction. "Even if people have physical limitations, something as simple as walking is beneficial for brain health," says Dr. Ravdin.

Reduce and manage cardiovascular disease risk factors. In general, what's good for your heart is also good for your brain. Heart disease risk factors such as smoking, high cholesterol, and diabetes have been linked to poor cognitive test scores. Unhealthy behaviors can narrow blood vessels and restrict blood flow to the brain.

See your physician regularly. It's important to visit your doctor annually, and possibly every six months, to discuss and review conditions and medications that might influence your cognitive health, says Dr. Ravdin. "We are not the best judges of our thinking abilities, and, many times, the most concerning deficits are observed by others."

Lifestyle changes

You also can make lifestyle changes that have been shown to improve cognitive function, such as being more socially active and learning a new language or how to play a musical instrument. Quality sleep (seven to eight hours a night for most people) also aids the brain's decision-making skills and memory.

Finally, introduce more brain-boosting foods to your diet, especially those containing omega-3 fatty acids. A 2015 study in Aging Neuroscience found that the omega-3s in many nuts and seeds, and in fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna, can improve cognitive flexibility--the ability to think about multiple subjects or concepts at the same time.

Of course, not all aspects of cognitive aging are negative. In fact, you may discover advantages to your older brain. "Our reasoning abilities tend to improve as we age," says Dr. Ravdin. "We have more life experiences that we can apply to different situations.

"With aging, we can also bring a newfound appreciation of what's really important in life. In this way, an aging brain can be a vital source of strength, wisdom, and well-being."

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW

While cognitive aging is natural, seek a professional evaluation if you, or someone else, notices any of the following events occurring frequently:

* Difficulty with everyday activities, such as driving and making decisions

* Problems communicating verbally, and/or becoming very frustrated when having trouble communicating

* Increasing memory lapses, such as repeating questions, forgetting appointments, or being unable to remember if and when you took medication
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Title Annotation:MIND & MEMORY
Publication:Women's Health Advisor
Date:Oct 1, 2015
Words:702
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