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Decline is not inevitable

Decline is Not Inevitable

Your brain is constantly changing, and your behaviours and experiences shape it at every age. Recent research has found some good news about brain ageing that may surprise you.

Your brain is plastic and can change even in later life:

  • Scientists used to think that the connections in our brain were set like concrete. We now know that the brain can be reshaped throughout life. We call this ability ‘neuroplasticity’.
  • Neuroplasticity offers hope because it means that our brain can bend and adapt when faced with mental challenges, ageing and disease. It also means that you can keep your brain in good shape by staying mentally active.

Your brain is resilient, and “cognitive reserve” offers protection to your brain:

  • Some people are able to maintain better brain function as they age, even if they develop the physical damage associated with dementia.
  • This resilience, sometimes referred to as cognitive reserve, appears to be linked to modifiable factors such as the level of education reached, carrying out cognitively demanding tasks, and being socially active.

Decline in cognitive function is not an inevitable part of ageing:

  • As we get older, it is common to become a little slower at working things out and we may find it difficult to make new memories for recent events. But a serious decline in cognitive function is not automatically a part of getting older.
  • The brain can actually remain relatively healthy and function well into late life.
  • In fact, disease is the cause of most decline.

There are risk and protective factors, and it is possible and important to look after your brain health:

  • While age is the biggest risk factor for developing dementia, we know that other ‘modifiable’ factors can either increase our risk for dementia, or protect us against developing decline in cognitive function.
  • We know that people with better cardiovascular health, who have been more physically, socially and mentally active, who have adopted healthy eating habits, who don’t smoke, and who drink alcohol in moderation are less likely, on average, to develop dementia.

So the news on brain ageing is good. There are many strategies for protecting your brain health that we will be exploring.

Sabina Brennan is a Research Assistant Professor in Psychology at Trinity College Dublin.

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