Yes, we are aging. Every day. That’s a simple fact of life. But we’re also living longer than ever before and we have a remarkable opportunity to enjoy our longevity by making good choices and paying attention to the role of healthy cognitive function in our overall ability to live – and age – with vitality, grace and dignity.
Healthy cognitive function means we’re able to retain our ability to think, learn, and remember. We can mentally reason, concentrate, make plans, evaluate and organize information in a variety of ways.
Cognitive health falls along a continuum, from optimal to mild impairment to severe dementia. There’s great variability in how dementia develops and how it progresses. Some people never show early signs and others can show a slow or a rapid decline. Some of the early signs of dementia include forgetfulness that disrupts daily living, inability to plan or solve problems, difficulty performing simple or routine tasks, and time/place confusion.
Genetics, lifestyle, and environmental factors are associated with cognitive function. We are learning through the field of epigenetics that there are evidence based interventions that can help to support your metabolism and offset an increased genetic risk to develop Alzheimer’s disease and many other conditions. In addition to this, we can preserve and even enhance brain health with a few simple lifestyle practices.
Here are some tips for keeping your brain active, healthy and sharp:
Never Stop Learning. Ongoing research shows the brain is able to evolve and learn across the lifespan. The key is to keep those neurons (brain cells) engaged. Actively seek to learn and experience new things. Read a variety of types of books and magazines. Play Sudoku, chess or other games that involve problem solving. Use an iPad. Travel. Learn a new language. Take (or teach) a class. This kind of mental stimulation helps your brain form new memories, strengthens existing memories, and creates new neural connections.
Stay Connected. Involvement with family, friends, and community creates positive emotions that are linked with overall vitality. People who are alone most of the time show sharper declines in cognitive function. If family isn’t nearby, join a club or volunteer.
Move that Body. Research indicates exercise improves connections among brain cells and may reduce risk for dementia. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise, five days per week unless otherwise advised by your physician.
Protect Your Brain: If you smoke or frequently drink alcohol it’s akin to draining the brain’s natural resources. Smoking interferes with healthy blood circulation, not just in the body but also to the brain. Alcohol impairs communication between neurons and causes long-term changes in brain chemicals involved with memory, emotion, and coordination. Certain prescription medicines (or a combination of medicines) can affect cognition, memory or thinking. If you experience such changes, or notice them in a loved one, talk to your doctor.
And it goes without saying (but it’s always good to be reminded): Eating whole foods and a low intake of sweets are the foundation for optimal brain health.
Remember, dementia is no longer considered a normal and inevitable outcome for an aging brain. We all have opportunities to retain healthy cognitive functioning, allowing us to maintain an independent and active lifestyle.
The Dana Foundation: Gateway to Responsible Information about the Brain. “What is ‘Healthy’ Cognitive Aging?” posted 15 Oct 2013: http://www.dana.org/News/What is_‘Healthy Cognitive_Aging_
National Institute of Aging Online. “Memory & Cognitive Health.” https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/featured/memory-cognitive-health
Also see Brain Health Presentations and Handouts: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/brain-health-resource
Smith G.E., “Healthy Cognitive Function and Dementia Prevention.” Am Psychol. (2016, May-June). 71:4, 268-275. http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/amp/71/4/268/
Alz.org “10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s.” http://www.alz.org/10-signs-symptoms-alzheimers-dementia.asp
Lautenschlager, N.T., Cox, K, Cyarto, E.V. “The influence of exercise on brain aging and dementia.” In special edition: Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) – Molecular Basis of Disease: Imaging Brain Aging and Neurodegenerative Disease (2012, Mar) 1822:3, 474-481. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbadis.2011.07.010 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0925443911001633
Kirk-Sanchez NJ, et al. “Physical exercise and cognitive performance in the elderly: current perspectives.” Clin Interv Aging (2014) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3872007/
Alzheimer’s Association. The Healthy Brain Initiative: A national public health road map to maintaining cognitive health. (published with the CDC): https://www.alz.org/national/documents/report_healthybraininitiative.pdf
Healthy Aging and Prevention: Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Emory University. http://alzheimers.emory.edu/healthy_aging/index.html