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by Kim Painter
Updated September 1, 2023
Recent research is challenging many long-held assumptions about the older brain. And it’s definitely a myth that you have no control over many age-related brain issues. In fact, doing nothing and just chalking it up to getting older may speed up some of these changes.
Myth 1: Doing brain games, like crossword puzzles, will slow mental decline.
Fact: A 2017 AARP survey conducted online among 1,140 adults ages 40 and above found that about 25 percent think brain games can improve brain health. But the truth is that there’s “weak to nonexistent” scientific evidence that supports this notion, says a research report by AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health.
While playing mentally stimulating games like crosswords may not reduce your risk of dementia by itself, the activity may sharpen some skills — especially if you challenge yourself with new types of games or other stimulating projects.
Also, certain activities that challenge the brain may help you manage your tasks better, according to the Alzheimer’s Society. That U.K organization funded a study of more than 6,700 participants 50 and older. Those who completed a six-month online cognitive training program focused on reasoning and problem-solving tasks scored better on cognitive tests and said they were better able to conduct daily tasks than those who did not take part in the program. Still, the organization suggests caution when encountering commercial brain training games that claim they can prevent or delay dementia.
Myth 2: The brain is hardwired to decline with age — and you can’t do anything about it.
Fact: The idea that mental decline is inevitable with age — that it’s somehow “hardwired” into the brain — is not true. Research over the past 50 years suggests that the brain’s plasticity — its ability to change and adapt — continues throughout life. While certain skills may decline somewhat, other skills may improve.
Moreover, new nerve cells in the brain’s hippocampus, which plays a major role in learning and memory, may keep growing well into a person’s late 80s, according to an examination of brain tissue from people who were neurologically healthy up to their ninth decade of life, which was reported in 2019 in Nature Medicine.
Brain structure and cognition vary from individual to individual, and “biological age” alone may not explain the variability. Factors like education, physical well-being and lifestyle habits may explain why some people experience mental decline while others stay sharp into old age, according to the 2023 report of AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health, “Building Better Brain Health for All People.”
Myth 3: Learning new things is harder when you are older.
Fact: The brain can learn new things at any age. In fact, the more someone learns, the better it is for the brain.
University of California, Riverside researchers found that 33 adults in their 60s, 70s and 80s who learned multiple new skills simultaneously — including Spanish, photography and music composition — thrived in two important ways: ncreased expertise in each field and improved cognitive abilities. The study was reported in 2023 in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B.
If you are concerned about learning new things as you get older, it will help to push past self-doubt and be open to learning and growth. Consider setting clear goals and choose an activity that interests you, and remember to take a break when you need one.
Myth 4: Older adults need less sleep than younger adults because they do less.
Fact: Not so. In fact, getting enough sleep is especially important when you’re older. When you sleep, your brain does some critical housekeeping, such as removing daily waste material and toxins, including the amyloid plaques linked to Alzheimer’s disease. The risk for dementia was doubled among more than 2,800 people 65 and older who got fewer than five hours of sleep daily, compared with those who got seven to eight hours, in a study reported in 2021 in Aging.
Myth 5: Depression and loneliness are just normal parts of aging.
Being isolated or alone as you age may lead to depression and anxiety, but those conditions are not a normal part of aging. In fact, depression has long been less common in older adults than in younger people. That holds true according to 2023 data from the Census Bureau.
What depression and anxiety in older adults have been linked to is faster brain aging. A review of 34 studies, published in 2018 in Psychological Medicine, found that older adults who had depression were at greater risk than those without for decline in mental skills, including decision-making, memory and processing information.
One solution: Regular exercise can be as effective in reducing depression as antidepressants, according to a 2023 review of randomized clinical trials in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases. The researchers note that exercise is now recommended as a treatment option for major depressive disorder by a number of mental health organizations. And there are plenty of great ways to expand your social circle.
Myth 6: Diet and exercise are good for the heart but don’t do much for the brain.
Fact: Lifestyle habits that are good for the heart are good for the brain, too, according to a 2018 report from AARP's Global Council on Brain Health. In particular, substantial evidence indicates that the Mediterranean diet — which is heavy on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and olive oil and light on red meat — may protect against cognitive decline, as well as heart disease and diabetes.