Health and Aging

Risks to Cognitive Health

Genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors are all thought to influence cognitive health. Some of these factors may contribute to a decline in thinking skills and the ability to perform everyday tasks such as driving, paying bills, taking medicine, and cooking.

Genetic factors are passed down (inherited) from a parent to child and cannot be controlled.

But environmental and lifestyle factors can be changed, particularly those you can control yourself. These factors include:

Health Problems

Many health conditions affect the brain and pose risks to cognitive function. These conditions include:

  • heart disease and high blood pressure—can lead to stroke and changes in blood vessels related to dementia
  • diabetes—damages blood vessels throughout the body, including the brain; increases risk for stroke and heart attack; associated with increased risk for Alzheimer's
  • Alzheimer's disease—causes a buildup of harmful proteins and other changes in the brain that leads to memory loss and other thinking problems
  • stroke—can damage blood vessels in the brain and increase risk for vascular dementia
  • depression—can lead to confusion or attention problems; has also been linked to dementia
  • delirium—shows up as an acute state of confusion, often during a hospital stay, and is associated with subsequent cognitive decline

It's important to prevent or seek treatment for these health problems. They affect your brain as well as your body!

Brain Injuries

Older adults are at higher risk of falls, car accidents, and other accidents that can cause brain injury. Alcohol and certain medicines can affect a person's ability to drive safely and increase the risk for accidents and brain injury. Learn about and deal with risks for falls, and participate in fall prevention programs. Wear helmets and seat belts to help prevent head injuries as well.

Medicines

Some medicines, and combinations of medicines, can affect a person's thinking and the way the brain works. For example, certain drugs can cause confusion, memory loss, hallucinations, and delusions in older adults.

Medicines can also interact with food, dietary supplements, alcohol, and other substances. Some of these interactions can affect how your brain functions. Drugs that can harm older adults' cognition include:

  • antihistamines for allergy relief
  • medicines for anxiety and depression
  • sleep aids
  • antipsychotics
  • muscle relaxants
  • some drugs to treat urinary incontinence
  • medications for relief of cramps in the stomach, intestines, and bladder

For information on medicines and older adults, see Medicine, Age, and Your Brain.

Physical Activity

Lack of exercise and other physical activity may increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease, depression, and stroke—all of which can harm the brain. In some studies, physical activity has been linked to improved cognitive performance and reduced risk for Alzheimer's disease. More research in this area is needed, however.

Diet

Woman and daughter cooking.A number of studies link eating certain foods with keeping the brain healthy—and suggest that other foods can increase health risk. For example, high-fat, high-sodium foods can lead to health problems, like heart disease and diabetes, that harm the brain.

Smoking

Smoking is harmful to your body and your brain. It raises the risk of heart attack, stroke, and lung disease. Quitting smoking at any age can improve your health.

Alcohol

Drinking too much alcohol affects the brain by slowing or impairing communication among brain cells. This can lead to slurred speech, fuzzy memory, drowsiness, and dizziness. Long-term effects may include changes in balance, memory, emotions, coordination, and body temperature. Staying away from alcohol can reverse some of these changes.

As people age, they may become more sensitive to alcohol's effects. The same amount of alcohol can have a greater effect on an older person than on someone who is younger. Also, some medicines can be dangerous when mixed with alcohol. Ask your doctor or pharmacist for more information

Sleep Problems

At any age, getting a good night's sleep supports brain health. Sleep problems—not getting enough sleep, sleeping poorly, and sleep disorders—can lead to trouble with memory, concentration, and other cognitive functions.

Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder that causes short pauses in breathing when a person is sleeping. It can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, or memory loss. Treatment for sleep apnea begins with lifestyle changes, such as avoiding alcohol, losing weight, and quitting smoking. Use of a special device ordered by a doctor may also help.

Social Isolation and Loneliness

Social isolation and feeling lonely may be bad for brain health. Loneliness has been linked to higher risk for dementia, and less social activity to poorer cognitive function.