A question that creeps into everyone’s thoughts at middle age is whether age-related cognitive decline is inevitable? Names come to mind more slowly, you misplace things more often, you forget a birthday or anniversary… But we are told fear not! Experts say these are normal signs of aging, not a problem unless it begins to affect your day-to-day life. 1
So, apart from the annoyance of occasional forgetfulness, is there really anything we can do to stay sharp and avoid those senior moments? We combed the advice of blue-chip medical sites to see what the top-notch experts have to say.
Maintain General Good Health
Maintaining good health is part of maintaining good cognitive health. Harvard Medical School’s Healthbeat column advises that we can reduce the risk of dementia with some basic healthy habits: Stay physically active, get adequate sleep, don’t smoke, cultivate strong social connections, limit yourself to one drink a day, and eat a diet low in saturated and trans fats. 2 Certain health conditions have known links to cognitive decline. They include high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea, depression, and hypothyroidism. 2 If you’ve already been diagnosed with any one of these conditions, it is essential to manage it well.
Donn Dexter, MD of the Mayo Clinic advises, “The first thing I tell my patients is to keep exercising. Exercise has many known benefits, and it appears that regular physical activity benefits the brain. Multiple research studies show that people who are physically active are less likely to experience a decline in their mental function and have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. We believe these benefits are a result of increased blood flow to your brain during exercise. It also tends to counter some of the natural reduction in brain connections that occur during aging, in effect reversing some of the problems. Aim to exercise several times per week for 30–60 minutes. You can walk, swim, play tennis or any other moderate aerobic activity that increases your heart rate.” 3
Erica Seigneur, PhD, of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, echoes support for cardiovascular exercise, stating “Exercise triggers a molecular cascade in the brain that ultimately results in an increase in synaptic plasticity…This, in turn, is believed to improve learning, memory, and other forms of cognition.”4 That neural plasticity is a normal ability of our nervous system to modify itself in response to injury, aging, or changing environment. “Plasticity is necessary not only for neural networks to acquire new functional properties, but also for them to remain robust and stable.” 5
Maybe Try Those Brain Games
Ronald Peterson, MD, PhD, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic offers this tempered advice, “Crossword puzzles, Sudoku, word searches, mazes: You might have heard that activities such as these can be effective brain games to stay sharp. Some of these claims are based on real science, and if you engage in these activities, you may keep yourself mentally fresher and sharper for a longer period. The big challenge is determining whether this transfers into any real-life activity. We think so, but we don’t know for sure.” 6
Stay Busy, Busy, Busy
Researchers from the Mayo Clinic’s Scottsdale, Arizona center looked at 2,000 people, average age 78, with no cognitive impairment and then followed them for 5 years, giving them thinking and memory tests every 15 months. 7 The American Academy of Neurology summarized the results this way: 8
- “Using a computer in middle-age was associated with a 48% lower risk of mild cognitive impairment.
- “Engaging in social activities, like going to movies or going out with friends, or playing games, like doing crosswords or playing cards, in both middle-age and later life were associated with a 20% lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment.
- “Craft activities were associated with a 42% lower risk, but only in later life.
- “The more activities people engaged in during later life, the less likely they were to develop mild cognitive impairment. Those who engaged in two activities were 28% less likely to develop memory and thinking problems than those who took part in no activities, while those who took part in three activities were 45% less likely, those with four activities were 56% less likely and those with five activities were 43% less likely.” 8
The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine put together the above video about their report Preventing Cognitive Decline and Dementia: A Way Forward
Get Good Sleep
Barry Gordon, MD, PhD, a Johns Hopkins neurologist advises, “Memory is just a tiny part of brain functioning, and there’s a lot you can do to protect your brain health.” He advises that “There’s increasing evidence that sleep disorders can cause problems with mental functions—including memory. Two of the most common sleep zappers: obstructive sleep apnea and stress.” 10 Dr. Gordon is one of the few experts we saw reminding us to review our meds with our doctor, as he said: “some drugs, such as sedatives for anxiety, can affect thinking.” 10
Bottom Line? A Hybrid Approach May Be Best
The NEJM (New England Journal of Medicine) Group, a highly respected family of medical publications, has a service called NEJM Journal Watch that helps busy clinicians cut through an ever-growing mountain of published studies to quickly grasp medical developments to improve the care of their patients. They summarized a series of systemic reviews commissioned by the National Institute on Aging to distill what works and what doesn’t to prevent cognitive decline. This is what they had to say: “Currently no single intervention has been shown to prevent cognitive decline, mild cognitive impairment (MCI), or dementia. A multidomain lifestyle intervention with physical activity, diet, and cognitive training shows promise and supports a comprehensive approach to optimize brain health.” 11
Thomas Oppong, writing for Medium about some science-backed habits that can maintain good brain health, offers these words of reassurance: “Nothing about our brains is set in stone. Our brains are surprisingly dynamic. It can adapt, heal, renew or rewire itself.”12
With that in mind, if all these activities are good for you anyway, why not develop your own daily or weekly program that takes to heart these suggestions from real experts? Your brain will thank you!
1Cleveland Clinic. “Lost My Keys Again—Alzheimer’s or Normal Aging? Know When to See a Doctor.” Health Essentials. 18 July 2013. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/lost-my-keys-again-alzheimers-or-normal-aging/
2Harvard Medical School. “6 Simple Steps to Keep Your Mind Sharp at Any Age.” Healthbeat. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/6-simple-steps-to-keep-your-mind-sharp-at-any-age
3Dexter D. “5 Tips to Keep Your Brain Healthy.” Mayo Clinic, Speaking of Health. 29 March 2019. https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/5-tips-to-keep-your-brain-healthy
4Curtin M. Want a Healthy Brain? Stanford Neuroscientists Say Doing This 1 Easy Activity Improves Memory, Boosts Mood, and Prevents Dementia (It’s Not Sudoku). Inc. 6 September 2019. https://www.inc.com/melanie-curtin/want-a-healthy-brain-stanford-neuroscientists-say-doing-this-1-easy-activity-improves-memory-boosts-mood-prevents-dementia.html
5von Bernhardi R, Bernhardi LE, Eugenín J. What Is Neural Plasticity? Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology. 2017;1015:1-15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29080018
6Peterson, R. “Memory Loss.” Mayo Clinic, Speaking of Health. 30 March 2019. https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/memory-loss
7Krell-Roesch J et al. Quantity and quality of mental activities and the risk of incident mild cognitive impairment. Neurology. 2019 Aug 6;93(6):e548-e558. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6710000/
8American Academy of Neurology. “Can computer use, crafts and games slow or prevent age-related memory loss? New study looks at timing and number of mentally stimulating activities.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 July 2019. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/07/190710171407.htm
10Gordon, B. “Memory: 5 Ways to Protect Your Brain Health.” Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/memory-5-ways-to-protect-your-brain-health
11Molano JRV. Many Methods to Prevent Cognitive Decline Fall Short. 25 January 2018. NEJM Journal Watch. https://www.jwatch.org/na45755/2018/01/25/many-methods-prevent-cognitive-decline-fall-short
12Oppong T. 5 Habits That Will help Your Brain Stay in Peak Condition. Medium. 12 December 2019. https://medium.com/kaizen-habits/5-habits-that-will-help-your-brain-stay-in-peak-condition-7f830d7ae0b9
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