Scientists used to believe that we lose brain cells as we age, and according to Carol Barnes, a regent’s professor in the University of Arizona Department of Psychology, researchers now know that is not the case.

Instead, Barnes said, what changes is the connections between cells. As we age, communication between cells weakens and we tend not to retain information as long as we used to.

While genes play a role, these changes cannot be reduced to genetics alone, says Barnes. Rather, researchers are learning that a number of lifestyle factors also influence how our brains’ age.

For instance, “Education is a very very good predictor of who will age well," Barnes said.

That is because learning, especially life-long learning, serves "to engage those synapses and connections in the brain and to keep them optimally functional for the longest time," she added.

Additionally, a diet high in Omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in salmon and tuna, can help. And, researchers are finding that what we used to think of as indulgences, such as red wine, chocolate and nuts can, in moderation, all have positive impacts on our long term memory and cognition.

Barnes will be presenting her work on aging the brain at the second annual Conference on Successful Aging this Friday, Feb. 21.