Getting older is a blessing.
Aging means that you get decades of life to enjoy the world around you, grow as a person, and watch your loved ones grow as well. To make sure that you get the most out of your golden years, it’s important to keep not only your body in tip-top shape, but also your mind. Read on to learn more about cognitive health in older adults and what to do to keep your mind sharp as the years go by.
By Anna Hill
How early should an adult start being intentional about keeping their mind sharp?
“It is never too early to start implementing healthy behaviors in order to keep our minds active and sharp,” says Dr. Rochelle Jones, a clinical neuropsychologist with Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation. Though there is little one can do to prevent the natural and normal changes that occur in the brain due to aging, evidence points to the benefits of lifelong healthy lifestyle choices when it comes to maintaining cognitive abilities.
According to Greg Joyner, a nurse practitioner with Morning Pointe Senior Living, “When it comes to growth and development, some studies indicate that our abilities such as short-term memory peak in one’s 20s, then begin a gradual decline.” Because of this, it’s important to focus on cognitive health throughout life – similar to how it’s important to focus on physical activity throughout life.
Are there things that might predispose people toward earlier cognitive decline?
It’s always important to be mindful of your medical history, and this remains true where cognitive abilities are concerned. There are a variety of risk factors that might lead to premature cognitive decline, ranging from medical events to lifestyle choices. Risk factors can include the following:
Chronic health conditions.
Things like diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol, when left uncontrolled, can lead to weakened or damaged blood vessels, which can lead to cognitive problems.
Certain lifestyle factors such as smoking, illicit substance use, heavy drinking, chronic sleep disruption, social isolation, poor diet, and lack of exercise can lead to the chronic conditions listed above, which in turn can lead to an increased risk of early cognitive decline.
Chronic stress or mood disorders.
Mental health problems such as depression and anxiety – both of which many adults will experience at some point in life – can cause an imbalance in brain chemistry, which can lead to trouble with thinking skills.
Some studies indicate that there are gene mutations that pass from one generation to the next that can predispose people to early cognitive decline, or, more specifically, Alzheimer’s.
Events such as stroke or traumatic brain injury can increase someone’s risk of early cognitive decline due to the way they affect one’s ability to think and recall.
What actions can an older adult take to keep their mind sharp and engaged with the world around them?
For adults looking to do more to preserve their cognitive abilities, there are a wide variety of steps they can take to be more proactive. First and foremost, it’s important to be up to date on the current status of your health and to actively manage any chronic medical conditions you might have with the help and supervision of your doctor. Being mindful of your alcohol intake and stopping smoking can also reduce your risk of early decline.
Another important step you can take toward maintaining good cognitive health is to also maintain a healthy diet. “Not only can this reduce one’s risk of developing chronic medical conditions, but it also can keep your brain healthy,” advises Dr. Jones. The Mediterranean diet – one filled with fruits, vegetables, fish, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and heart-healthy fats – specifically has been shown to assist with cognitive health in the long run.
Regular exercise is vital not only to your physical health, but to your cognitive health as well. “Exercise helps to maintain healthy blood flow to the brain and releases endorphins, both of which have been shown to facilitate cognitive functioning,” says Joyner. Exercise can improve cardiovascular health, stress levels, and sleep – all of which are important when it comes to keeping your mind sharp. However, you should always consult with your doctor before starting or changing exercise routines.
Maintaining a healthy sleep schedule and routine is essential at any age – seven to eight hours nightly is generally recommended. “Good sleep has been shown to not only reduce the risk of early cognitive decline, but it also generally improves retention when it comes to learning new things,” Joyner explains. It’s also important to do what you can to reduce stress, which can accelerate cognitive difficulties. This might include meditation, journaling, or setting aside time each day to do something you enjoy, such as reading or chatting with your loved ones.
“It’s important to be up to date on the current status of your health and to actively manage any chronic medical conditions you might have.”
Finally, you can improve your chances of maintaining a healthy brain by exercising it. “Engage in cognitively stimulating activities such as word games, jigsaw puzzles, strategy games, or card games,” says Dr. Jones. “There are also computer training programs and workbooks specifically designed to work on select cognitive domains, including memory, attention, processing speed, and executive functioning.” Ultimately, the goal is to challenge your brain with sustained learning and engagement, which stimulates stronger brain connections and therefore stronger cognitive abilities.
One of the reasons many people want to maintain good cognitive health is so that they can continue to interact and engage with their loved ones. The good news is, staying socially connected can in turn keep your mind sharp as the years go by. Reach out to your loved ones, make new friends, or join a class or a club – the connections you make with others are a positive feedback loop when it comes to your cognitive health.