November 06, 2021
Most people think of their lifespan as how long they will live, but don’t really give much thought to whether their “healthspan,” that period of time in which they enjoy good health, both physically and cognitively, will last as long as their lives. In fact, if you are like many people, you have come to accept the popular narrative that your health, especially your cognitive ability, is doomed to an inevitable decline with age.
Research done on people aged 20 to 90 years shows that as people age, there is actually maintenance in such areas as language, abstract reasoning, knowledge gained from experience, and the ability to identify visual and spatial relationships among objects. Studies in this same age group do show that many individuals decline in other areas, such as processing speed, executive functions (planning, remembering instructions), and episodic (their unique recollections), and working memory.
An interesting new study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Open Network on January 15, 2021, looked at the trajectory of cognitive decline in 330 people 100 years of age and older. These people did not decline as expected but maintained high levels of cognitive performance over all domains, except for a slight decrease in memory functioning. When some of these people died, their autopsy reports showed clear physical indication of Alzheimer’s disease-like problems in their brains, but their functioning was not compromised while they were alive! So clearly, there are other things going on besides just underlying pathology that kept these people’s brains healthy.
This is good news! Cognitive decline is variable and no two individuals will follow the same trajectory, nor is cognitive decline inevitable as you age. The better news is this: there are things you can do, right now, to ensure your brain and your cognitive health remains intact as you get older. Here are five practices to put in place today:
One - Your brain, although it’s special, is a bodily organ, just like any other. When you take care of your physical health, you are protecting your brain. One of the very best ways to do this is to stay physically active. A daily brisk walk is a great way to start. Also part of taking care of your health is to keep your blood pressure under control. High blood pressure can lead to a stroke, which damages the brain. If you smoke, ask your doctor for help in quitting. And be sure to get enough sleep. Sleep is critically important to brain health so don’t burn the candle at both ends.
Two -Not only should you keep your body active, but it’s important to keep your mind active as well. There was a lot of early excitement about certain computer games and puzzles you could do to ward off dementia, but recent reviews of these studies don’t clearly show benefits. Researchers do agree that staying engaged in activities that are personally meaningful to you, such as volunteer work, pursuing a hobby, or learning something new, can have positive effects on memory and thinking.
Three - A healthy body requires a healthy diet and good nutrition goes a long way in keeping your mind sharp. A brain-healthy diet is one rich in vegetables and fruits, whole grains, lean meats, and poultry. Solid fats should be sparsely consumed as well as sugar, salt, and alcohol. Be sure to drink enough water.
Four - Managing stress is crucial to brain health as it’s been clearly shown that over time chronic stress can damage the brain and put you at risk for Alzheimer’s or other dementias. Regular exercise is a great stress reliever, as well as journaling or relaxation practices such as meditation.
Five - Stay social. It’s ironic that with the rise of “social” media, many of us tend to feel more isolated than ever. This is especially true with the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. But a healthy brain depends on strong social connections. Visit regularly with family and friends, even if it’s online.