We often think of aging as a process that affects our bodies: our knees or back, our vision or hearing. But the process of aging doesn’t discriminate, and this means aging affects our brains as well. The way we experience the aging of our brains is called cognitive aging.
Cognitive aging describes the typical changes in our cognitive abilities as we get older. Most of us are familiar with these changes: our thinking isn’t quite as fast as it was when we were in our 20s or 30s, it may take us a bit more time to think of the word we want, or to remember that conversation from a few days ago.
We experience these changes in our cognition because of the underlying changes in our brain as it ages. Importantly, cognitive aging is not a disease in itself, and it does not inexorably lead to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.
While cognitive aging is inherent in humans (and animals), it’s a unique process that impacts each individual differently. This means that how each of us experiences cognitive aging will likely include similarities and differences.
What most of us don’t realize is that regardless of our individual situations, we have a role to play in the process of cognitive aging. Many of our everyday health behaviors have a significant impact – for good or ill – on our cognition as we age.
So, what can we do to help facilitate successful cognitive aging? Research across the spectrum of health behaviors supports exercise, diet, cognitive training, sleep, and stress, as playing a role in cognitive aging.
A regular schedule of aerobic and strengthening exercises can benefit your cognitive function and your overall health. An abundance of research now shows that regular exercise protects your brain function and lowers your risk for cognitive decline in the future.
We are what we eat. Our diet can work to preserve our cognitive abilities, and reduce the likelihood of cognitive decline as we age. Recent research has shown that the MIND diet can significantly reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. A landmark study at Rush University Medical Center showed that the MIND Diet reduced the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 53% for participants who followed the diet rigorously; and by 35% for those who followed the diet moderately well.
3. Cognitive Training
A mentally stimulating, engaged lifestyle is an important factor for promoting successful cognitive aging and staving off cognitive decline. Brain games can be a powerful medium to sharpen recall, slow age-related memory decline, and help maintain peak memory performance. But brain games aren’t the only way to stay sharp. Studies show that individuals who stimulate their brains at least three times a week with activities like crossword puzzles, reading, painting, playing an instrument, and playing video games, appear to delay the start of cognitive decline by more than three years.
Increasingly, sleep is being recognized as playing a role in physical and cognitive health. Poor sleep quality and duration may affect our long-term risk for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Most of us should aim to sleep for 7 to 8 hours every night, even if we think we can get by with less.
It is important to find ways to reduce stress in your life because long-term stress harms your health, and it also increases levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone,” which can be toxic to the brain, and has been associated with a greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease.