Keeping Your Brain Active As You Age!

By Teresa Andreoli, Psy.D.
Psychology Assistant, Lic #PSB 31633
BCIA-C #3949 Fellow

Healthy Aging, Optimal Aging:  Information, treatments, current research, resources, and helpful hints.

While it is true that all of us age, the quality of life and rate at which we age can vary considerably.

This is not how things began. As babies, we all start out pretty much the same. However, that tends to change as we age. Over time, some of us will age more rapidly than others. Certainly, events that are outside of our control can occur throughout our times. However, some people remain vibrant, energetic, and seemingly much younger while others succumb to various levels of disease and illness and have a poor quality of life. Most chronic diseases such as stroke, diabetes, and heart disease, are related to lifestyle. Just look at the most common forms of illness among people over 65 in this country, according to a recent government study:

The Aging Process:
To a large extent, the manner in which we age depends upon our behaviors and the accumulation of habits held over the years. While it is true that we all have to die of something, we do not want to spend our golden years battling a chronic illness. What is optimal, and achievable, is to extend the number of optimally healthy years as we age. This can be achieved through the Healthy Aging Model, which is discussed below. By taking simple steps to changing your life TODAY, you can make a significant impact on the quality of your life TOMORROW.



What it is…
The healthy aging model consists of six different behavioral change modules. These individual modules work synergistically. That is, when two or more changes are made, the combination promotes an even stronger response. For example, combined changes to diet and exercise will produce a greater effect than if these were employed one at a time.

How it works….
The healthy aging or optimal aging model is not just a grouping of common sense behavioral changes that we all know we are supposed to do. The difference here is that these specific modules are designed to impact and strengthen the central nervous system (CNS), making the brain more resilient to the aging process. Scientifically-based, these modules are designed to promote neurogenesis, the generation of new brain cells. The neurotrophin hypothesis proposes that repetitive neuronal activity enhances the expression, secretion, or actions of neurotransmitters, thereby changing neuronal synapses (i.e., the points where neurons communicate with other).

One of the latest scientific breakthroughs in neuroscience is the concept of neuroplasticity.  According to the model of neuroplasticity, brain cell structure can change as an adaptation to its environment, and this ability exists throughout our lifetime. In a recent study, researchers obtained before and after MRI images of a group of individuals who were taught to juggle. They found clear evidence of increased neuronal complexity in specific areas of the brain following the juggling training [1]. So, in essence, you can teach an old dog new tricks (although it might take a little longer). Similarly, the plasticity works in both directions. That is, if you don’t use it, you will surely lose it; and this tendency tends to snowball with age.

The Healthy Aging Model contains six different modules that support healthy brain functioning. By starting with the areas that are easiest for you, the resulting CNS changes that occur will improve your brain-body resilience, improve the biological age ratio, and increase your changes of ultimately making changes in the more challenging areas.

To have the best of both worlds would be to possess the wisdom of age while maintaining the health and vitality of a younger person. Remember it is never too late to start! The changes you make in your 60’s will make you more vibrant in your 80’s. By taking simple steps to changing your life TODAY, you can make a significant impact on the quality of your life TOMORROW.



We all know the importance of exercise, but how many of us really know what an impact it can make on our quality of life? Researchers have shown that lack of exercise is one of the key predictors of mortality. Therefore, getting started in an exercise program can make a large difference in your life. The more conditioned the brain is by way of exercise, the less stress hormones the brain produces. When there is a reduction in stress hormone release, the brain is better able to help manage weight [2, 3]. In addition to its positive physiological effects, exercise is also effective in improving mood [4].

How Do I stay committed?…
It is always tough to start a new habit. Sometimes, older adults have been less than active through most of their lives, and it becomes even more daunting a task. If you’ve been sedentary for a long time and have any health risks, it is important that you check with your family physician before embarking on a new exercise program.


1. Exercise for 30 minutes four times or more per week at 60%-75% of your maximum heart rate.

To calculate maximal heart rate:
220-Age = Max HR

2. Pick something you enjoy.

3. If you are having difficulty sticking with your program, consider joining a class or plan the exercise with a friend.

4. To really challenge your brain’s plasticity, change your exercise routine every four weeks. For example, learn a new dance or practice jumping rope. Not only will you burn a few more calories in a fun way, but you will also promote an increase in neurotrophic factors, thus improving the brain’s vitality.

5. Consult with your physician before starting any intense exercise program, particularly if you have not been active for a period of time.



Most of us have too much stress in our lives, and we know that too much stress can be a bad thing. What most of us don’t know is just how bad stress can be, particularly when considering the aging process. High levels of stress can be toxic to the brain.  Researchers have found that stress causes cell death in parts of the brain, particularly the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain that generates new learning [5]. The hippocampus is particularly vulnerable to aging, which is why a common symptom of cognitive aging involves difficulty with new learning.

How does depression and stress affect overall health? Researchers found that co-morbid depression was associated with a significantly increased risk of death from heart failure, a risk that was reduced with the successful treatment of depression [6].


These 12 strategies were developed by the American Heart Association. Try to incorporate at least one or two of these ideas into your life this week. Then a couple of weeks later try one or two more steps. Before you know it, you will have developed effective ways to manage stress.

1. Talk with family, friends, clergy, or other trusted advisers about your concerns and stresses. Ask for their support.
2. Take 15 to 20 minutes a day to sit quietly, breathe deeply, and think of a peaceful scene.
3. Learn to accept things you can’t change. You don’t have to solve all of life’s problems.
4. Count to 10 before answering or responding when you feel angry.
5. Don’t use smoking, drinking, overeating, drugs, or caffeine to cope with stress. These make things worse.
6. Look for the good in situations instead of the bad.
7. Exercise regularly. Do something you enjoy, like walking, swimming, jogging, golfing, walking a pet, tai chi, or cycling. Check with your doctor to determine what activity level is right for you.
8. Think ahead about what may upset you and try to avoid it. For example, spend less time with people who bother you. If you’re still working or volunteering, cut back on your hours and adjust your schedule to avoid driving in rush-hour traffic.
9. Plan productive solutions to problems. For example, talk with your neighbor if the dog next door bothers you and set clear limits on how much you’ll do for family members.
10. Learn to say no. Don’t promise too much. Give yourself enough time to get things done.
11. Join a support group … maybe for people with heart disease, for women, for men, for retired persons, or some other group with which you identify.
12. Seek out a mental health professional or counselor if you can’t cope on your own. Ask your doctor, family, or friends for recommendations. If they can’t help, ask your spiritual leader or a hospital social worker for some names.



As the old song goes, “People who need people are the luckiest people.” Human beings are particularly social animals who seem to do best when interacting with others. Maintaining adequate social contact might be particularly difficult with older people. Often, older people may lose their spouse, siblings, and longtime friends to death or illness. Children grow and move away. We retire from our jobs. Before we know it, our intricate network of social supports has withered away, leaving us isolated and alone.

Our social needs changes as we age:

Social needs are particularly important for older people. In a study at Duke University, social isolation was identified as a key risk factor in those who developed cardiovascular disease [7]. Therefore, it is very important to maintain adequate social interaction. Simple activities such as picking up the phone and making some calls, joining a weekly group activity at your community center or church, or volunteering can go a long way to improving your social interaction.



Everyone possesses a spiritual component although not everyone is religious. Religion includes specific beliefs and practices while spirituality is far broader. Spirituality has been associated with health, and this may become particularly important as we age.

Spiritual practice can take many forms, from organized religious observation to more personal practices that help one gain access to a higher power or consciousness. Some of the benefits of spiritual practice include:

1. Stress reduction, through “shifting” one’s sense of burden or aloneness to something/someone greater than oneself.
2. Physical/mental peace and calmness, through the repetitive and rhythmic nature of prayer, chanting, music, and meditation.
3. Community support and social connectedness.

Has it been awhile since you’ve last been to your house of worship? Many spiritual centers have programs specifically designed for returning members of the congregation. Also, never forget that many forms of spiritual worship do not require an organized setting or structure. You can set up a special place in your home, or even go outdoors to find your spiritual center. Now might be just the right time to bring spirituality back into your life.

Maintaining healthy eating and proper nutrition can be particularly challenging as we age. Decreased food intake, a sedentary lifestyle, and reduced energy expenditure in older adults altogether become critical risk factors for malnutrition, especially protein and micronutrients. Changes in bodily functions, together with the malnutrition associated with advancing age, increase the risk of developing a number of age-related diseases. Free radicals and oxidative stress have been recognized as important factors in the biology of aging and of many age-associated degenerative diseases.



Healthy Eating Tips:

Nutrition tips for seniors- Our nutrition changes as we get older. The way our bodies digest food and absorb nutrients change as we grow old. Here are some tips for seniors put out by the American Dietetic Association:

          • Calcium – Calcium is important for good bone health at any age, but it becomes even more important as we get older to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Milk, cheese, and yogurt are the best sources of calcium.
          • Vitamin D – Vitamin D also aids in bone health by protecting them from disease. The body makes Vitamin D when ultraviolet light hits the skin. Milk is another good source of Vitamin D.
          • Iron – Iron deficiency is a frequent problem for people over 50. Iron deficiency can also lead to anemia. Some sources of iron include; lean meat, poultry, beans and iron enriched cereal. 
          • Vitamin C – Vitamin C is just as important as iron because it will enhance the body’s ability to absorb iron. Some common sources of Vitamin C include; Fruits, fruit juices, and vegetables. 
          • Vitamin A – Vitamin A is good for the eyes and skin and can be found in leafy green, yellow and orange vegetables. 
          • Folate – Folate aids in the production of red blood cells and can prevent anemia. Sources of folate include leafy, green vegetables, fruits, beans, enriched grain products, wheat germ, and some fortified cereals. 
          • Vitamin B12 – B12 also helps to make red blood cells. Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy foods are all good sources. 
          • Zinc – Zinc helps to ward off infections and to repair damaged tissue. Sources of Zinc include; meat, seafood, whole-grains, and milk.



Throughout our lifetime, it is vital to maintain an active and healthy brain. This is even more important as we age. Just as we must continue to exercise to keep a healthy body, we must continue to exercise our brain to maintain its vitality. As we age, we run a significant risk for memory impairment that can ultimately lead to dementing diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease [for a more detailed discussion on cognitive changes in the elderly, see Mild Cognitive Impairment in related article, Cognitive Disorders Among the Elderly].

Therefore, it is important to keep our brains active and fit. The problem is that just when we need to keep our brains more active, we often do less with our brains. This is the problem when people retire. Many of the activities that used to keep the brain busy and active (e.g., solving workaday problems) are no longer available for the retiree. Instead, older people may find themselves with little mental challenge. When combined with other problems of old age, such as health issues and lack of exercise, the brain can begin to lose its resiliency.

However, there are a number of changes a person can make that can keep the brain more fit and vital. Try one of these activities to rev up your most important organ and give your brain the exercise it needs:

Tips to Maintain Healthy Cognitive Function:

1. Don’t retire! Or at least, don’t stop engaging in productive activity after you retire from your regular job or career. Many active seniors find that their most satisfying time is when they stop working and finally get a chance to pursue a second career or interest. For some, this might include volunteer work, involvement in the arts, mentoring, or even coaching. For others, retirement might be the time for them to develop a small business. Whatever the case, your brain will stay active and engaged only if you give it tasks to do.

2. Challenge your brain. Keep your brain active with tasks that involve some level of challenge. Just as physical activity keeps your body strong, mental activity keeps your mind strong. By continually challenging yourself to learn new skills, your brain will produce new connections between nerve cells, thus promoting neuroplasticity. This will help your brain store and retrieve information more easily, no matter what your age.

3. Drink alcohol in moderation, if at all. Heavy drinking can cause permanent brain damage. Drink alcohol moderately, if at all. For women and anyone 65 or older, that means no more than one drink daily. For men under 65, drink no more than two drinks daily. Evidence shows that moderate alcohol consumption may prevent memory loss though it isn’t clear how. But don’t use this as a reason to start drinking if you don’t already drink.

4. Reduce your stress. High levels of stress can impact optimal brain function, causing a cascade of hormones that can interfere with the way your brain forms new memories.  Learn to identify stress before it gets the best of you. Even if you have only a few minutes to yourself, use it to breathe deeply and relax. If stress is a chronic problem in your life, try looking for long-term stress solutions, such as simplifying your life, getting some exercise or cutting out some activities.

Just remember, the Healthy Aging Model is a program designed for anyone who wants to make positive changes to increase his/her mental and physical health and vitality. You can start by changing one or all of the modules. Remember, these changes work synergistically, and all operate to help promote a healthier Central Nervous System. Little changes can make a BIG DIFFERENCE. There is no better time to begin than TODAY! If you would like more information on the Healthy Aging Model, please contact the Brain Therapy Center at 805-449-8777.


 [1]. Draganski, B., Gaser, C., Busch, V., Schuierer, G., Bogdahn, U., & May, A. (2004). Neuroplasticity: Changes in grey matter induced by training. Nature, 427, 311-312 (22 January 2004) | doi: 10.1038/427311a.

[2]. Colcombe, S., Kramer, A., Erickson, K., Scalf, P. McAuley, E., Cohen, N. et al. (2004). Cardiovascular fitness, cortical plasticity, and aging. Proceeds of the National Academy of Science, 101 (9), 3316-3321.

[3]. Levy, W., Cerqueira, M.D., Harp, G.D., Johannesen, K.A., Abrass, I., Schwartz, R.S. (1998). Effect of endurance exercise training on heart rate variability at rest in healthy young and older men. American Journal of Cardiology, 82 (10), 1236-1241.

[4]. Blumenthal, J., Bayak, M., Moore, K., Craqighead, W., Herman, S., Khatri, P. et al. (1999). Efforts of exercise training on older patients with major depression. Archives of Internal Medicine, 159, (19), 2349-2356.

[5]. Cogain, M. & Foreyt, J. (2005). Designing “lifestyle interventions” with brain in mind. Neurobiology of Aging [In Press].

[6] Thomas, S., Freidmann, E., Meenakshi, K., Cook, L. & Lann, A. (2003). Depression in patients with heart failure: Physiologic effects, incidence, & relation to mortality. AACN Clinical Issues: Advanced Practice in Acute & Critical Care. Psychosocial Issues, 14 (1), 3-12.

[7] Brummett, B., Barefoot, J., Siegler, I., Clapp-Channing, N., Lytle, B., Bostworth, H., Williams, Jr., R., & Mark, D. (2001). Characteristics of Socially Isolated Patients With Coronary Artery Disease Who Are at Elevated Risk for Mortality. Psychosomatic Medicine, 63, 267-272.