Cognitive decline, including memory loss and confusion, is a common issue affecting one out of every nine adults. While some causes of cognitive decline are unavoidable, there are many ways to exercise our bodies and brains as we get older. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That’s why it’s never too early to start thinking about brain health and taking proactive steps to stay mentally fit.
Physical Causes of Cognitive Decline
One of the best ways to stay mentally healthy is by keeping the rest of our bodies in good working condition. Uncontrolled high blood sugar and blood pressure levels are two of the most common causes of mental fogginess. When our blood circulation is not running as smoothly as it should, the nutrients in our blood cannot access our brain to provide adequate nourishment.
Elevated blood pressure and blood sugar damage the delicate circulatory system that our brain relies on for fuel. Over time, this cumulative damage deprives our minds of the oxygen, vitamins, and minerals that are required for optimal functioning. While major medical issues tend to draw our immediate attention, a gradual decline in health isn’t always as noticeable.
To prevent these issues from going undetected, keeping up with yearly physicals and recommended preventative care schedules can help us stay on top of our health status. By developing an ongoing relationship with a trusted primary care doctor, we can monitor common markers of disease and get proper treatment before long-term adverse side effects begin to set in.
Luckily, there are several commonsense habits for keeping your body and brain in good shape. Eating whole foods, high in fiber, natural fats (especially omega-3s), and adequate protein, provides balance and prevents blood sugar ups and downs. Foods high in antioxidants, like fruits and vegetables, help lessen the damage associated with inflammation from high blood sugar levels. Fruits and veggies are also naturally low in sodium while being excellent sources of potassium, an ideal combination for keeping blood pressure levels in check.
Regular physical activity, whether that means taking 10-minute walks or participating in a structured exercise program, also protects your body and brain from the effects of aging. Exercise has the added benefits of boosting mood and reducing stress, playing into the emotional aspects of cognitive decline, and potentially replacing damaging coping strategies (like drinking alcohol or smoking).
Alcohol consumption has a somewhat controversial impact on the aging brain, depending on the dosage and the study population group. It should come as no surprise that chronic “heavy” alcohol consumption, particularly when combined with smoking, is disastrous for brain health. Studies show this lifestyle choice leads to a 36% increase in the rate of cognitive decline over ten years compared to “moderate” drinkers who did not smoke.
For reference, moderate drinking is defined by the CDC as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. A standard drink equals 14 grams of pure alcohol. This amount is typically found in 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, a 1.5-ounce shot of liquor, or 8 ounces of malt liquor. However, most health professionals agree that people who don’t already drink should not begin drinking in the hopes of purported health benefits. Because no amount of smoking contributes to good health, cutting back or quitting is always beneficial.
Social and Emotional Factors for Brain Health
Beyond the physical causes of cognitive decline, there are social and emotional components worth considering as well. Higher education levels, the presence of religious beliefs, the absence of depression, and participation in social activities are all associated with lower rates of cognitive decline. More robust social ties, be it through family members, community programs, or religious groups, are beneficial for mental fitness.
Some individuals are fortunate to have these social factors effortlessly aligned (by their living situation or education earlier in life). However, it’s not uncommon to fall into patterns of isolation or depression without a proactive approach to seeking connection. Getting treatment for depression, becoming part of a group, and taking on meaningful activities can help ward off the slippery slope to unhappy “golden years.”
What You Can Do
Here are ten proactive ways to keep the lights from dimming in your mind with age:
- Learn something new. Learn how to play an instrument or speak a new language. Challenging your brain to understand new concepts and tasks helps form neural connections.
- Sleep enough. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule to help your body develop a natural wake and sleep cycle.
- Be physically active. Start small and find an accountability partner to help you maintain an active lifestyle. Even a 5-minute walk can lead to health benefits if done on a consistent and progressive basis.
- Quit bad habits. Smoking, drinking, and negative thought patterns are destructive. Seek support if you need help ridding the bad habits from your routine.
- Play games. Trivia, sudoku, crossword puzzles, or even a Rubik’s cube can be used to exercise your brain.
- Read more. Engage in fiction or non-fiction books that give your mind the chance to visualize and reflect on the words on the page.
- Eat right. Avoid processed foods that are high in sodium and sugar. Eat more fruits and vegetables to gain a host of health benefits.
- Keep up with preventative care. Find a primary care doctor that you like, and don’t skip your yearly check-up.
- Write. Start a blog, keep a journal, write letters and emails to friends.
- Engage in the community. Volunteer with programs you can be passionate about, such as the Humane Society or Habitat for Humanity. Participate in religious activities (if you have a religious affiliation) or attend community events at your local senior center.
Although forgetfulness and changes in mental clarity are common in older adults, it’s upsetting to notice negative changes in those we love. It can be difficult to watch people get older or no longer be able to do things the way they did in the past. Explaining to children that grandparents or older relatives may need reminders or require a little extra patience can be an essential lesson for them to learn.
Finding tactful ways to assist those who seem to be declining without overstepping their independence often feels like a tough balancing act. Even though the person is still alive (and perhaps has not changed much physically), they may be very different than they used to be. It’s not unusual to go through a period of grief when the dynamics of a relationship change. For support in dealing with cognitive changes in those you love, don’t underestimate the power of a Grief Recovery program. Many of the same tools used in other types of grief work overlap a variety of life’s situations, helping you achieve a greater sense of acceptance and peace.
- Subjective cognitive decline – a public health issue. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated 2019.
- Hagger-Johnson G, Sabia S, Brunner EJ, et al. Combined impact of smoking and heavy alcohol use on cognitive decline in early old age: Whitehall II prospective cohort study. Br J Psychiatry. 2013;203(2):120-5. doi: 10.1192/bjp.bp.112.122960
- Alcohol and public health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated 2020.
- Kim M, Park JM. Factors affecting cognitive function according to gender in community-dwelling elderly individuals. Epidemiol Health. 2017;39:e2017054. doi: 10.4178/epih.e2017054