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How to keep your brain healthy as you age

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Learn more about how the brain works, the habits that keep it healthy and the symptoms that deserve a call to your doctor.

In many ways, your brain makes you who you are. It allows you to take a walk, enjoy music and talk to a friend all at once. It powers your ability to think, learn and remember. And it helps you feel connected to the people around you.

“Your brain controls everything in your body. Your thinking, memory, emotions, movement, vision and even everyday things you don’t think about, such as breathing,” says Gary Keilson, MD. He’s the chief of neurology at Reliant Medical Group, part of Optum, in Worcester, Massachusetts. “That makes brain health really important. After all, if your brain isn’t healthy, your body won’t be healthy either. It’s all connected.”

What exactly is your brain and how does it work?

Your brain only weighs three pounds, but this organ packs a whole lot of power. It has three main regions: the forebrain, midbrain and hindbrain. Each area has specific jobs to do. But all the parts work together through millions of nerve cells called neurons. These cells send signals around your brain and to every other cell in your body. Below are some of the specific parts of the brain and what they do.1

  • Cerebellum. Located in the back of the brain (hindbrain), it’s in charge of movement, balance and coordination.

  • Cerebrum. This part sits at the top of your brain. It stores your memories and fires your imagination. It lets you read, think and recognize your friends. The cerebrum is divided into two sides (left and right). Each one has a special role. This includes helping you do everything from making schedules to solving math problems to enjoying music.

  • Cerebral cortex. This is the gray matter located on the outer layer of your brain. It’s your brain’s information-processing center. It’s called gray matter because of all the pinkish-gray brain cell bodies that live there.

  • Thalamus. This part is located deep inside the brain. It carries messages from your ears, eyes, nose and skin. The hypothalamus is in there, too. It controls things such as appetite and sleep. Your pituitary gland is also nearby. It makes the chemicals that control functions such as how you grow and how you deal with stress.

Your brain also works with your gut and the bacteria (germs) that live there. You may have heard of neurotransmitters. Those are chemical messengers that send signals to your brain and control your mood. Lots of those messengers, such as serotonin (the “feel-good” chemical), are produced by bacteria inside your gut.

There’s nonstop communication between your gut and your brain. In fact, scientists are beginning to think of the gut as a second brain. It helps control the way your brain functions from birth to old age.

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How are your brain and your health connected?

They are deeply connected. In fact, if something is off in your body, it can affect your brain, and vice versa. Below are some examples.

Your heart and your brain. What’s good for your heart is good for your brain. A recent study found that heart disease led to a 40% higher risk of thinking problems and memory loss. And young people with high blood pressure were twice as likely to have memory loss when they got older.2

Diabetes and your brain. Even conditions such as diabetes (high blood sugar) can affect your brain health. The brain uses half of all the sugar in your blood for energy. If levels get too high or too low, you can have trouble with memory and learning, as well as mood swings and more.

Mental health and your brain. It’s not all in your head. Though certain mental health problems start in the brain, you can feel them throughout the body. For instance, people with depression, bipolar disorder or seasonal affective disorder may also have stomach problems, extreme tiredness or headaches.

And folks who have anxiety may feel restless, tired, tense and have difficulty sleeping.

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What kinds of habits support good brain health?

Your best bet? Choose healthier habits. “We need to make sure we get proper sleep, eat healthfully and exercise,” says Christopher Wilson, MD. He’s the medical director of neurology with American Health Network, part of Optum, in Avon, Indiana. “It’s really not rocket science. These are strategies that everyone can work on. Some people are looking for one easy pill to help them strengthen their brain. But there’s no such thing. We need to take care of our bodies to take care of our brains.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends these six healthy habits:3

Stop smoking. Smoking is one of the best ways to lower your risk of dementia (memory loss). There’s a strong link between smoking and thinking and memory problems. In fact, a recent study found that quitting smoking lowered the risk to close to the level of those who had never smoked.4

Eat healthy. A 2020 study showed that eating low-fat foods significantly reduced the risk of thinking and memory problems.5 Dr. Keilson recommends the Mediterranean diet. This eating plan is high in fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, fruit and fish. And it’s low in processed foods such as white bread and white pasta. “It’s the same kind of eating plan doctors suggest for heart patients,” Dr. Keilson says. “That’s because heart-healthy foods are good for the brain, too.” Learn more about how to eat healthier.

Move more. “Your brain needs the constant supply of oxygen that exercise offers,” says Dr. Keilson. In fact, too much sitting causes thinning of the area of the brain responsible for memory.6 Aim for 90 to 150 minutes of aerobic activity a week, says Dr. Wilson. That’s about 30 minutes three to five days a week. Aerobic activity gets your heart beating faster. Walking, dancing, swimming and bicycling all count.

Manage your numbers. That includes your blood pressure, blood sugar, weight and cholesterol (a fat in the blood). High blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and obesity can affect your brain health. “An important way to prevent memory loss and other brain illnesses involves treating common medical conditions,” says Dr. Keilson. Studies show that high blood pressure and diabetes, for example, come with a higher risk of dementia.7 So see your doctor for checkups and keep tabs on your health numbers. And be sure to take any medications your doctor prescribes for you.

Get plenty of sleep. Those eight hours of shut-eye? They do more than just make you look rested. They help keep your brain healthy, too. A 2021 study looked at sleep and the risk of dementia in older adults. It found that the risk of dementia was twice as high among people who got fewer than five hours of sleep, compared with those who got seven to eight hours.8

“Sleep is extremely important,” says Dr. Keilson. “Poor sleep and sleep disturbances put you at higher risk of brain disease, including strokes.” Learn more about how sleep keeps you healthy and how to get the rest you need. 

Connect with others. Do you have a bestie? Then you know how important friendship can be. It feels good to have somebody you can count on. And it’s good for you. People with friends are not only healthier but also tend to live longer. And not having friends can literally make you sick. One research review found that loneliness raises your chance of heart disease by 29%. And it can increase your chances of having a stroke by 32%.9

Loneliness can directly impact your brain health, too. Researchers have connected it to poor thinking abilities.10 And one study found that people who were socially isolated had a 26% greater chance of developing dementia.11 “Social isolation is definitely not good for your brain,” says Dr. Keilson. “It’s connected with depression. And depression can affect your memory.”

It can take a little effort to make new friends as an adult. But the payoff can be well worth it. Any activity you can do with other people is a chance to meet someone you’ll connect with. If it’s hard to leave home or you’re just not a joiner, explore virtual activities. Working with a therapist online for just a few months can ease loneliness, too.

What are some signs that I might have a brain disorder?

“If you have trouble thinking clearly, or if you have poor memory, you might have something affecting how your brain works,” says Dr. Wilson. “Some other signs would be difficulty with balance and coordination, weakness, numbness, trouble speaking or vision problems.”

Concerned? Talk to your health care provider as soon as you can. “Brain disorders are diagnosed by seeing a doctor who can take a detailed history. They will also perform a neurological exam to see how your brain, spinal cord, peripheral nerves and muscles are working together,” Dr. Wilson says. “You might also see a neurologist, a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating these conditions.” Search Optum doctors near you now. 

What are the most common brain illnesses?

About 100 million Americans suffer from a brain disorder.12 Below are some of the most common disorders of the brain and nervous system.

Mental illness. This group of brain disorders affects a person’s thinking, feelings, behavior and mood. And they affect millions of people each year. In fact, in the U.S., one in five adults experience one.20 Some common ones include depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder and eating disorders. Each health problem has its own symptoms. Here are some important ones to watch for:21

  • Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks
  • Trying to harm or end one’s life, or making plans to do so
  • Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason
  • Drastic changes in mood, behavior, personality or sleep
  • Intense worries that get in the way of daily life
  • Significant weight gain or loss
  • Extreme difficulty concentrating or sitting still

It’s important to connect with a doctor if you or a loved one is having these symptoms. There are many ways to care for them. The first step is to reach out for help.

Optum has mental health resources that fit with your life. But if you’re thinking about hurting yourself or are worried about a loved one, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or call 988.

Migraine. Migraines are way more than just ordinary headaches. They affect more than 39 million people in the United States.13 Severe headaches can also lead to mental health challenges. About 1 in 5 people with occasional migraines may also have depression and anxiety. That number goes up as the number of severe headaches increases.14 

Stroke. These are sometimes called “brain attacks.” Strokes happen when blood stops flowing to your brain. This can be just for an instant if there’s a small blockage. Or it can be much more serious. A blood vessel in the brain can burst. About 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke each year. That’s one every 40 seconds.15 Look out for the signs below.19 Use the acronym B.E. F.A.S.T. to help you remember the symptoms to watch for: 

  • Balance: Trouble walking, dizziness or poor balance
  • Eyes: Trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Face: Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, especially on one side
  • Arms: Sudden numbness or weakness in the arms, especially on one side; inability to lift the arm
  • Speech: Sudden confusion, or trouble speaking or understanding speech
  • Time: Time to call 911

Stroke can also cause a severe headache. “Watch out for symptoms that come on suddenly — and act fast,” advises Dr. Keilson. 

Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s happens when nerve cells that control movement die off. Symptoms can include:

  • Tremors
  • Shaking
  • Stiffness
  • Trouble with balance and coordination

It starts slowly but gets worse over time. Nearly 1 million Americans have Parkinson’s. Most get it after age 60.16

Dementia. People who have dementia have trouble remembering things. They also have problems with thinking or doing ordinary daily tasks. It’s not a normal part of aging. It happens when brain cells become damaged in certain regions of the brain. That keeps the cells from communicating with one another. Alzheimer’s is one kind of dementia. In the United States, there are more than 5 million adults with dementia.17

Learn more about early signs of memory loss. 

Seizures. Your brain is a busy place, with millions of nerve cells sending signals at every moment. When too many neurons fire all at once, it causes an electrical burst that can change how you move. It can make you feel different or even lose awareness. Epilepsy is one type of seizure disorder. It’s more common in children and older adults. About 1 in 100 people in the United States have had at least one seizure or been diagnosed with epilepsy.18

Are there treatments for brain illness?

Brain diseases happen a lot, says Dr. Wilson. Fortunately, new treatments are being developed all the time.

“In the last 25 years, there have been so many advances in treating neurological disease,” says Dr. Keilson. “For example, with seizures some people go on medication and never have another one again. And stroke treatments, given within a few hours, can work really well. The most important message is to see your doctor if you’re worried about something.”

Looking for a doctor who gets you? We can help. Search Optum providers now.

Sources

  1. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Brain basics: know your brain. Last reviewed July 25, 2022. Accessed July 29, 2022.
  2. Circulation. Heart disease and stroke statistics — 2022 update: a report from the American Heart Association. Published January 26, 2022. Accessed July 29, 2022.
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthy body, healthier brain. Last reviewed May 29, 2020. Accessed July 29, 2022.
  4. Public Library of Science. Smoking is associated with an increased risk of dementia: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies with investigation of potential effect modifiers. Published March 12, 2015. Accessed July 29, 2022.
  5. EClinicalMedicine. Low-fat dietary pattern and global cognitive function: exploratory analyses of the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) randomized dietary modification trial. Published January 8, 2020. Accessed July 29, 2022.
  6. UCLA Health. Researchers link sedentary behavior to thinning in brain region critical for memory. Published April 16, 2018. Accessed July 29, 2022.
  7. Stroke. A primary care agenda for brain health: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Published March 15, 2021. Accessed July 29, 2022.
  8. Aging. Examining sleep deficiency and disturbance and their risk for incident dementia and all-cause mortality in older adults across 5 years in the United States. Published February 11, 2021. Accessed July 29, 2022.
  9. Heart. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Published 2016. Accessed July 29, 2022.
  10. Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine. Loneliness, depressive symptoms, and cognitive functioning among U.S. Chinese older adults. Published July 17, 2018. Accessed July 29, 2022.
  11. Neurology. Associations of social isolation and loneliness with later dementia. Published July 12, 2022. Accessed July 29, 2022.
  12. JAMA Neurology. Burden of neurological disorders across the US from 1990–2017: a global burden of disease study. Published November 2, 2020. Accessed July 29, 2022.
  13. American Migraine Foundation. Results from the migraine and mental health connection survey. Accessed July 29, 2022.
  14. American Migraine Foundation. The link between migraine, depression, and anxiety. Published May 2, 2018. Accessed August 23, 2022.
  15. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stroke facts. Last reviewed April 5, 2022. Accessed July 29, 2022.
  16. Parkinson’s Foundation. Statistics. Accessed July 29, 2022.
  17. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is dementia? Last reviewed April 5, 2019. Accessed July 29, 2022.
  18. Epilepsy Foundation. Who can get epilepsy? Published February 4, 2022. Accessed July 29, 2022.
  19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stroke signs and symptoms. Last reviewed May 4, 2022. Accessed August 6, 2022.
  20. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Mental health by the numbers. Last updated June 2022. Accessed August 10, 2022.
  21. National Alliance on Mental Illness. About mental illness: Warning signs and symptoms. N.D. Accessed August 10, 2022.

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