For the second time today, your keys have gone missing. Did you take out the garbage or just leave it in the hallway? That one actor in that one movie – what was his name? You know – the bald one in that action movie?

Memory is an odd thing. Sometimes our brains are running on all cylinders. Other times, it feels like we can’t find the spark to get our mind moving. And as we get older, we’re more concerned when we forget things or get confused.

But how much of that is just normal aging? What isn’t? And what should you do when that forgetfulness is a red flag, rather than something to laugh off?

Together, we’ll go through how your brain changes with age, both physically and mentally. We’ll discuss your brain’s function, what to do if you need help and how to keep your mind in tip-top shape. And while we can’t be sure if you’re talking about Bruce Willis, Vin Diesel or someone else, at least we can help you rest easy knowing that NOT knowing can be OK.

What happens to the aging brain?

Every part of your body is affected by aging in one way or another – your brain included. And while it’s easy to see the years reflected on our skin, the changes in our brains aren’t nearly as noticeable – at least not at first.

Starting in your 30s, your brain starts becoming smaller, reducing its blood flow and pulling back on the size of its nerve network. We don’t feel these small, early changes and our brain picks up the slack by growing new patterns of nerve endings.

However, as we get older, these physical shifts start affecting how our brain works. Researchers are finding that the older we get, the more time it can take for our brains to process information and to perform its regular job of remembering, reasoning and thinking – work that’s also known as cognitive functioning. Over time, dopamine, serotonin and other chemical messengers in our brain also start to decline, leading to a decrease in brain performance and a rise in depression.

Don’t worry though – these decreases are far from unusual. In fact, these are just byproducts of time. Fortunately, there are some things that we can do, both physically and mentally, to help counteract these losses.

Is brain aging bad?

The fact that your brain is changing over time isn’t a bad thing or a good thing – it’s just a part of normal aging. Instead, it’s better to think more along the lines of what’s normal and what isn’t.

Some of the unusual ways your brain functions are absolutely expected. However, some behaviors can be a bit more troubling and can send a signal that something needs attention.

We’ll detail examples of each, as well as what to do when you’re starting to see things that should spur you into action.

What’s normal for an aging brain?

When we think of what’s normal aging for our brains, it helps to temper our expectations of what it can and can’t do well. A recent Psychology Today article summed it up perfectly by stating that “our memory processes did not evolve to keep accurate and detailed accounts of the events in our lives. The brain is not our personal stenographer or record keeper.”

We like to think that our memories should be a perfect high-definition video record of all that’s happened to us. In reality, memory should be thought of more like a story told around a campfire. The details may change and be misremembered, but the essence and lessons learned from our memories are really what counts. Even the youngest and sharpest minds out there are fully capable of misremembering things – that’s just how memory has evolved over millions of years.

Once you stop thinking of your memory as a massive computer hard drive, you can start to cut yourself a bit more slack when it comes to forgetting or misremembering. And, oddly enough, the less you stress out about your memory, the more you tend to remember! We’ll talk more about that later.

Beyond memories, an older brain may need more time to think of words and recall names, as well as have a harder time multitasking and paying attention. On the other hand, studies are finding that those changes are accompanied by positive ones, including larger vocabularies, better understanding of the meanings of words and a greater depth and breadth of knowledge. And yes, you can still create new memories, learn new skills and increase your knowledge as you age.

What isn’t normal for an aging brain?

Now that we know what’s OK to expect, let’s dive into what things might be a cause for concern. The key thing to look for is the start of cognitive decline, which is a slow decline in memory, judgement and the ability to learn and solve problems – usually happening over a period of time from several months to several years. Cognitive decline that affects your ability to function in daily life and/or in your job is known as dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia in people older than 65, but it isn’t the only one.

Out of the Alzheimer’s Association list of 10 warning signs to watch, here are some particularly important ones regarding memory:

  • Memory loss that disrupts daily life – Instead of forgetting names and appointments but remembering them later, you start to forget them completely. You may also start asking the same questions over and over in addition to forgetting information you recently learned.
  • Challenges in planning or solving problems – Making the odd error when doing your bills is OK, but increasing difficulty in following a recipe or keeping track of your finances isn’t.
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks – This means getting lost driving to places you regularly visit or suddenly forgetting how to play your favorite games.
  • Confusion with time or place – Forgetting the day of the week and then remembering it later is normal. But a bigger issue is when you start losing track of dates, seasons and the passage of time altogether.
  • New problems with words in speaking or writing – Beyond having occasional problems finding the right word, you have constant trouble finding the correct terms for familiar household items. Increased difficulty following, joining or having conversations is also a red flag.
  • Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps – We all lose things, but we’re usually able to find them in familiar places after some detective work. A problem might be developing if you constantly lose things and find them either in unfamiliar places (for example, your car keys in the freezer) or are completely unable to figure out how or why they appeared.

If you, or someone who knows you, start noticing these aging brain symptoms, call your doctor to make an appointment. There, you can discuss your symptoms and possible next steps to evaluate your present condition.

How can I stop my brain from aging?

Unfortunately, unless you have access to time-travel technology, there’s no way to keep your brain from growing older. However, there are things you can do to help keep your mind healthy and sharp as you age. One of our recent blog posts features four ways to keep your brain healthy and active as you age. Here’s a quick recap, along with some additional tips:

  • Exercise your body – Physical activity is great for your brain. Plus, regular exercise helps prevent chronic diseases that put your brain at risk.
  • Have more fun – Playing games, taking on new hobbies, volunteering and participating in group activities are all great ways to stem the effects of aging.
  • Connect with family and friends – Getting in touch with family over the phone or in person exercises your brain AND helps you build an excellent support network to battle stress that can interfere with your memory.
  • Feed your brain – Look into the Mediterranean diet or the MIND diet. Both require foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants – nutrients proven to be good for your brain.
  • Keep your blood pressure in check – Chronic high blood pressure can wear on the blood vessels that supply your brain, eventually increasing the risk of small strokes that can lead to possible thinking and memory problems. Staying in your optimal blood pressure zone can help keep your brain’s vessel network from weakening over time.
  • Learn something new – You can keep your brain limber by taking a continuing education course, learning a new language or diving deeper into a subject you love. Researchers are finding that learning new skills and gaining knowledge can help maintain your memory.

Start with a Medicare Annual Wellness Visit

Looking for a good opportunity to talk with your doctor about brain health? Start with your Medicare Annual Wellness Visit. It’s a perfect time to talk about any current symptoms you have and to see if you need any additional tests or treatments. In addition, you and your doctor can come up with a game plan to keep your mind (and body) in good shape.