How Exercise, Diet, Sleep, and Hearing Affect Brain Aging

Fruit next to hearing devices
Cyndi Connolly

As we age, it’s important to pay attention to our cognitive health. It’s normal for a decline to begin as we age but left unaddressed it can quickly develop into irreversible dementia. To avoid this Stephen M. Stahl, MD, Ph.D., adjunct professor of psychiatry, University of California San Diego explains announced four pillars of cognitive health at the 2017 Neuroscience Educational Institute (NEI) Congress. “Exercise, diet, sleep, and hearing are four major factors that impact our aging,” Stahl explains.

As the Brain Ages

Our brains are responsible for thought, memory, emotion, touch, motor skills, vision, breathing, temperature, hunger, and every process that regulates our body. This affects how we perform everyday tasks and, in some ways, defines who we are by our long-term memories and our skills. When our cognitive ability declines it can cause atrophy of brain tissue. It can be devastating to witness even thinkers of great accolades suffer from confusion from brain atrophy. Stahl explains, “In normal aging, our brains slow down. Intelligence remains stable, but we become less mentally flexible. We have longer processing time and declines in motor, sensory, and cognitive abilities.”

The Importance of Exercise as We Age

There are non-modifiable factors to cognitive decline leading to dementia, such as family history and advanced age. However, a lot of what speeds up or slows down the process of aging and the breakdown of tissue in our brain is a lifestyle. One key to a healthy brain is an active lifestyle. Cardiovascular health directly affects the flow and quality of the blood received to the brain. Brain cells and tissue rely on ample oxygenated blood to maintain optimal health. Regular exercise for 30 minutes or more at least three times a week can improve cardiovascular health significantly and affect cognitive health as well. One study found that those who exercised 3 times a week or more had a 32% reduced chance of dementia when compared to those with a more sedentary lifestyle.

A Healthy Diet as We Age

Along with regular exercise, the heart and brain rely on a healthy diet to stay at optimal functioning. This includes a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins while avoiding processed foods and sugars. This can not only boost your brain’s elasticity, but increase energy levels, boost mood, and increase your resistance to illness. What is important to remember is that is never too late to start eating healthier. For an improved quality of life, you can start today.

The Foccus of Healthy Sleep

It is common for sleep patterns to change as we age. For many, as they reach 60 and beyond it may be more difficult to fall asleep and wake more often during the night. While total sleep time remains the same as when you were young, you may find yourself spending more time in bed. It is recommended to aim for 6.75 to 8 hours of sleep nightly for reduced stress, improved mood, and more energy during the day. If you are having trouble getting this amount of sleep, it can increase the risk of chronic depression, loss of concentration, and even cognitive decline. Insomnia is commonly associated with increased cognitive impairment, particularly pertaining to attention span, concentration, memory, and performance of simple daily tasks. To ensure you get enough sleep, diet and exercise are closely connected. Avoid caffeine alcohol and sugar close to bedtime and regular exercise will ensure you sleep more soundly.

Treating Hearing Loss to Combat Cognitive Decline

One in three people over the age of 65 have hearing loss and half of all people over 75. Hearing loss is not only an ear issue but affects all aspects of your life. Hearing loss is often associated with a lack of social engagement as interactions become strained and stressful. This can lead to chronic depression and anxiety causing increased cortisol levels and affecting focus. Lack of social engagement associated with hearing loss also can lead to a higher risk of cognitive decline.

Treating Hearing Loss

If you suspect you have a hearing loss the longer you put it off the more likely it can turn into a larger issue. Make sure to get plenty of sleep, eat healthy, stay active and make sure to schedule a hearing exam as soon as possible.