How to Keep a Healthy Mind While Aging: 8 Easy Strategies

Healthy mindWith 1 in 5 people likely to be over 60 by 2050 (Ballesteros, 2022), it is becoming increasingly essential to understand why our cognitive powers often fade as we age and how we can maintain a healthy mind throughout our lifetime.

Failing cognition is far from inevitable, particularly when we adopt a positive mindset toward getting older (Ramscar & Baayen, 2019; De Pressigny, 2024).

Several approaches and interventions involve taking advantage of continuing brain plasticity to boost cognitive functioning at any age (Ballesteros, 2022).

This article examines the impact of aging on the brain and offers recommendations for maintaining our clients’ cognitive capacity and performance.

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How Does Aging Change the Brain?

We associate several changes in our cognitive ability with aging, some of which we may have witnessed in our relatives.

Older adults sometimes (National Institute on Aging, n.d.b; Ballesteros, 2022):

  • Find words and recall names more slowly
  • Experience problems multi-tasking
  • Experience a slight loss of focus and attention
  • Display reduced speed of processing information
  • Have weaker long-term episodic memory
  • Experience reduced cognitive control functions

Several different types of memory can be negatively impacted by aging, including (Zhang, 2023):

  • Short-term and working memory – used for processing and problem-solving
  • Explicit (declarative) and episodic memory – beyond the semantic memory related to the meaning of words and concepts, including specific facts and events
  • Prospective memory – involved in temporarily storing the representation of a future action

Ultimately, such “declines negatively affect the performance of instrumental activities of daily living, wellbeing, and work capacity among older adults” (Ballesteros, 2022, p. 340).

This isn’t always the case, though, and there are positives associated with getting older (Ballesteros, 2022; Ramscar & Baayen, 2019).

Studies have identified several beneficial cognitive changes that result from a lifetime of living and learning (National Institute on Aging, n.d.b):

  • More extensive vocabulary and greater knowledge of the deep meaning of words
  • More advanced verbal skills
  • An accumulation of knowledge and wisdom from many years of learning and experiencing
  • Increased emotional regulation and stability

Important physiological changes underpin the cognitive impacts of aging we’ve discussed so far. “The brain is the basis of cognitive function, and as people age, cognitive function declines and brain structures and functions change accordingly” (Zhang, 2023, p. 11).

Here are a few of the most impactful physical changes (Fotenos et al., 2008; Scott et al., 2019; Park & Bischof, 2013; Ballesteros, 2022; Zhang, 2023):

  • Gradual decrease in brain volume
    Particularly in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, impacting cognitive functions and memory
  • Reduced neuroplasticity
    A reduced ability of the brain to reorganize itself in response to learning and experiencing
  • Alteration to neurotransmitter levels
    Facilitating communication between neurons
  • Blood flow and oxygenation
    Impacting the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to brain cells
  • Changes in neural activity
    Exhibiting reduced brain activity during cognitive tasks

To dig deeper, watch this video and explore how your brain changes over your lifetime.

What happens to your brain as you age

8 Uncontrollable Factors Affecting the Aging Mind

While some factors associated with brain wellness and a healthy mind are very much within our control, others are not (or only minimally) or require medical support, including (Ballesteros, 2022; Zhang, 2023):

  1. Aging
    There is no way to prevent some degree of physical decline with age. This includes a decrease in brain volume, changes to our neurotransmitter systems, and an alteration to the function and structure of our neurons.
  2. Genetic factors
    We do not control the genetic variations we inherit, some of which may increase the risk of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases.
  3. Chronic health conditions
    Cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, and other health problems can impact the brain.
  4. Neurodegenerative diseases
    The risk of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease increases with age and can significantly impact cognitive ability.
  5. Hormonal changes
    Women’s estrogen levels decline with age, potentially impacting brain function.
  6. Environmental factors
    Knowingly and unknowingly, we are exposed to toxins, pollutants, and medicines that may affect the aging brain.
  7. Socioeconomic factors
    Education level, occupation, and socioeconomic status can all have a significant impact.
  8. Social and health care resources
    Across the world, the availability and accessibility of care resources vary considerably, impacting the support provided to individuals.

How we live has a significant impact on the aging brain. Awareness of the factors within our control can support more healthy lifestyles that promote brain health (Ballesteros, 2022; Zhang, 2023).

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5 Common Misconceptions About the Aging Brain

The US National Institute on Aging (n.d.c) refuted many of the myths associated with brain health and cognitive performance as we get older.

1. Depression and loneliness are normal in older adults

No, while depression and loneliness can have a significant impact on brain health and mental wellbeing, they are not inevitable as we age. In fact, as people get older, they often form closer relationships with friends and loved ones and live happy and fulfilling lives.

2. Older adults don’t need as much sleep

No, older adults still typically require seven to nine hours of sleep. Good sleep practices remain vital to staying healthy and alert while promoting mental wellbeing and cognitive performance.

3. Older adults are unable to learn new things

No, our brains are neuroplastic at all ages, though there is a reduction in plasticity. They can continue to change and make new connections as we develop new skills, seek out social connections, and create new meaningful experiences.

4. We will all get dementia as we get older

No, while the risk of dementia increases as we age, it is not inevitable. Two-thirds of people over the age 85 do not develop dementia, many of whom receive support through care and medication.

5. If our parents have Alzheimer’s disease, then so will we

No, while genetics is a factor that can increase the risk, there are many others, including health, lifestyle, and environment. It is worth seeking professional advice to understand the risks and how they can be reduced.

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What Does the Research Say?

Healthy mind while agingWith an aging population, a great deal of research is focused on how to maintain a healthy mind. This involves understanding how our brain changes throughout our lives and the factors involved (Zhang, 2023).

Older adults are not fundamentally different from younger adults

We typically think of older generations as very different from younger ones, yet research suggests otherwise. Rather, the aging are likely to be “(in many ways) simply rescaled versions of their younger selves” (Verhaeghen, 2022, p. 309).

When older adults were compared with younger adults on several lab-based tasks (for example, performing visual searches or comparing objects), they differed in time to completion and search strategy. Still, rather than a result of cognitive aging, it is really cognitive “rescaling” (Verhaeghen, 2022).

Researchers see it as less of a decline and more of a recalibration or shift in their mental processes. Older adults may simply employ alternate methods and strategies or allocate cognitive resources differently (Verhaeghen, 2022).

Cognitive plasticity can be encouraged in older adults

“Increasing longevity and falling birth rates are producing an increase in the number of older adults in relation to the total population” (Ballesteros, 2022, p. 340). As a result, a great deal of research is focusing on reducing the amount and effect of cognitive decline and dementia in older people (Ballesteros, 2022).

Thankfully, research shows that as we age, the brain retains a high degree of plasticity that can be called upon to help cope with the many changes. As a result, the brain can compensate for deficits that occur with aging by other means, such as frontal recruitment, where the brain is able to modify its function and neural connectivity over its lifetime (Ballesteros, 2022).

Social and economic factors impact cognitive functioning in later life

Ecological systems theory suggests that our close social context, broader community context, and cultural context interact and influence our mental and cognitive health (Scott et al., 2019).

Factors such as cognitive stimulation, access to education, and supportive home environments in childhood help provide a cognitive reserve that protects against cognitive decline in later life. At the same time, socioeconomic factors such as access to health care, good nutrition, and lifestyle factors reduce the likelihood of health conditions that impact cognitive function (Scott et al., 2019).

“Understanding the risk factors for these diseases in the context of broader environmental influences is a critical first step to developing effective ways to promote healthy cognitive aging” (Ballesteros, 2022, p. 123).

What is a healthy mind?

It’s helpful to understand what we mean by a well-performing brain. In this video, Daniel Siegel introduces the concept of the wheel of awareness, a powerful tool for integrating thoughts, feelings, and memories.

8 Lifestyle Strategies & Habits for a Healthy Mind

While several factors and triggers are outside our control, we can adopt many positive strategies and habits to give us the best possible opportunity for positive aging (National Institute on Aging, n.d.a; Ballesteros, 2022).

  1. Maintain physical wellness
    Taking care of physical wellbeing supports cognitive wellness (National Institute on Aging, n.d.a).

    • Attend recommended health screenings and checkups.
    • Manage health problems and take appropriate medication for diabetes, depression, high cholesterol, and depression.
    • Reduce the risk of brain injuries from falls, etc.
    • Limit alcohol and avoid illicit drug use.
    • Do not smoke or take other nicotine products.
    • Aim for between seven and nine hours of sleep.
    • Manage high blood pressure by discussing it with a doctor and taking prescribed medication.
  2. Physical exercise
    Regular physical activity is vital for physical and mental wellbeing. Activities such as aerobic exercise, dance, martial arts, and tai chi can be beneficial to maintaining good cognitive performance.
  3. Eat healthily
    While a healthy diet reduces the risk of chronic diseases, it is also recommended for brain health.
  4. Social engagement and staying connected
    Building and maintaining social connections and getting involved in community activities is essential to keeping a healthy mind — as is avoiding chronic loneliness. Visit friends and family, volunteer for local organizations, or find a new, shared hobby.
  5. Cognitive training and engagement
    Keeping a healthy mind that is active and engaged is vital for better memory and problem-solving skills. This might include memory training, mental skills, video games, reading, playing board games, or learning new languages.
  6. Embrace new talents
    Engagement in activities such as music, dance, art, and creative writing can improve quality of life, self-esteem, and memory.
  7. Manage stress
    While short-term stress can help focus our thoughts, chronic stress can damage the brain. Manage stress better by doing exercise, going for walks, listening to music, writing in a journal, and joining relaxation classes.
  8. Review medicines
    Consult a physician regularly to monitor and review the impact of drugs and supplements on brain health.

The activities above positively affect cognition in older adults and reduce mental decline (Ballesteros, 2022).

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In this TEDx talk, Wendy Suzuki discusses how physical movement is vital to mood and memory.

2 Books on Brain Health and Aging

Understanding the changes our brain undergoes as we age and adopting a positive outlook are vital to cognitive and mental health and the experience of aging (De Pressigny, 2024).

The following two books provide quite different outlooks yet offer valuable insight into what happens as we get older and how we build and maintain a healthy mind.

1. Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live – Becca Levy

Breaking the Age CodeBecca Levy is a Yale professor and a leading expert on what it means to age well. Deeply rooted in science and research, this insightful book explores the mind–body connection and how negative beliefs about age can damage our mental and physical wellness.

Along with many research-based observations, Levy offers a wealth of helpful practices to help us maintain our mental wellness and cognitive acuity and develop a positive outlook on aging.

Find the book on Amazon.


2. Cognitive Aging and Brain Health – Zhanjun Zhang

Cognitive Aging and Brain HealthZhanjun Zhang has edited a vast and diverse set of research devoted to cognitive aging and brain health.

It’s a valuable resource for researchers, health care workers, and readers wishing to immerse themselves in the latest findings and theories from extensive research.

Ultimately, it’s a book that promotes cognitive ability rather than accepting mental decline.

Find the book on Amazon.

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Helpful Resources From PositivePsychology.com

We have many resources available for coaches, therapists, and health care workers working with individuals and groups as they age to support their mental wellness and cognitive performance.

Worksheets

Our resources include:

More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:

Stop holding grudges

As we journey through life, we often hold grudges against those we love and care about the most.

The following steps help by attending to specific times of love for one another:

  • Step one – Spend five minutes thinking about someone you hold a grudge against.
  • Step two – Write their name in a circle and spend five minutes reflecting on why you are grateful for them.
  • Step three – Reflect on the following questions:
    • How do you feel when you hold on to a grudge?
    • How would you feel if you let go of the grudge?
    • What are the pros and cons of removing grudges?

Apologizing effectively

We all make mistakes. Yet, they can leave us feeling guilty or impact our degree of self-belief. Over time, we can carry a great deal of pain.

Apologizing effectively can help remove the guilt associated with our mistakes and wrongdoings.

The following steps help by focusing on apologizing effectively:

  • Step one – Acknowledge what we have done wrong and take responsibility.
  • Step two – Provide an explanation for what happened.
  • Step three – Express heartfelt remorse.
  • Step four – Reflect on how to make amends and repair the damage.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, check out this signature collection of 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.

A Take-Home Message

Research identifies several brain-related changes as we age, including reduced neuroplasticity, changes to neurotransmitter levels, lowered blood flow and oxygenation, and reduced brain volume.

In addition, we only have limited control over some other factors, such as genetic predispositions, neurodegenerative diseases, hormonal changes, and environmental and socioeconomic triggers. However, understanding these triggers and their influence is crucial for managing a healthy mind.

While our brains and cognitive performances change over the years, we should not assume it is all downhill.

Western culture often makes impactful yet misleading assumptions about our aging population’s cognitive and mental wellbeing, suggesting the elderly will inevitably be more depressed and lonelier, need limited sleep, be unable to learn new things, and experience dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Such misconceptions are unhelpful or even damaging.

As a supportive coach, counselor, or health care professional, you can help aging clients focus on positive lifestyles that benefit a healthy mind and cognitive longevity. These include maintaining physical wellness, engaging in healthy eating and physical exercises, learning new skills, and remaining socially connected.

With the right attitude and a healthy mind, we can help our clients live long and prosper.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

Frequently Asked Questions

A decline in cognition and failing mental wellbeing are not inevitable as we age. We can build and maintain a healthy mind by engaging in physical exercise, remaining socially active, and learning new skills (Ballesteros, 2022; Zhang, 2023).

Healthy eating for the brain involves foods that include antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins and minerals such as magnesium and zinc (Kępka et al., 2022).

Plenty of apps and software are available to support good memory in seniors, along with more physical activities such as painting, dancing, and practicing yoga (Ballesteros, 2022; Zhang, 2023).

  • Ballesteros, S. (2022). Cognitive plasticity induced in older adults by cognitive training, physical exercise, and combined interventions. In G. Sedek, T. M. Hess, & D. R. Touron (Eds.), Multiple pathways of cognitive aging: Motivational and contextual influences (pp. 340–367). Oxford University Press.
  • De Pressigny, C. (2024). Over the hill? New Scientist, 262(3491), 32–35.
  • Fotenos, A. F., Mintun, M. A., Snyder, A. Z., Morris, J. C., & Buckner, R. L. (2008). Brain volume decline in aging: Evidence for a relation between socioeconomic status, preclinical Alzheimer disease, and reserve. Archives of Neurology, 65, 113–120.
  • Kępka, A., Ochocińska, A., Borzym-Kluczyk, M., Chojnowska, S., Skorupa, E., Przychodzeń, M., & Waszkiewicz, N. (2022). Healthy food pyramid as well as physical and mental activity in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. Nutrients, 14(8), Article 1534.
  • National Institute on Aging. (n.d.a). Cognitive health and older adults. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/brain-health/cognitive-health-and-older-adults.
  • National Institute on Aging. (n.d.b). How the aging brain affects thinking. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/brain-health/how-aging-brain-affects-thinking
  • National Institute on Aging. (n.d.c). 10 common misconceptions about aging. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/healthy-aging/10-common-misconceptions-about-aging
  • Park, D. C., & Bischof, G. N. (2013). The aging mind: Neuroplasticity in response to cognitive training. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 15, 109– 119.
  • Ramscar, M., & Baayen, H. (2019). Cognitive decline? Pah! New Scientist: The Collection, 6(5), 46–47.
  • Scott, A. B., Reed, R. G., Garcia-Willingham, N. E., Lawrence, K. A., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2019). Lifespan socioeconomic context: Associations with cognitive functioning in later life. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 74(1), 113–125.
  • Verhaeghen, P. (2022). There is nothing wrong with cognitive aging, and here is what to do about it. In G. Sedek, T. M. Hess, & D. R. Touron (Eds.), Multiple pathways of cognitive aging: Motivational and contextual influences (pp. 340–367). Oxford University Press.
  • Zhang, Z. (2023). Cognitive aging and brain health. Springer.

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