If you’re worried about losing your cognition as you age, there’s a sound reason for it.
It runs rampant…
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in the US alone, the number of people who suffer from Alzheimer’s and related dementias is expected to double to an unsettling 417 million people by 2060.
While it’s certainly a burden that’s quickly on the rise, the good news is there are ways to protect against cognitive decline.
It comes with a caveat, though: You need to be proactive and take preventive measures.
This is hugely important because, sadly, diseases like Alzheimer’s chip away at your brain for 20 years before you even experience any symptoms.
So, if you’re ready to take preventive measures, follow these five straightforward ways to protect against cognitive decline. Your future self will thank you for it.
#1. Commit to an exercise regimen
The first way to protect your brain from cognitive decline is to commit to a weekly workout regimen — preferably one that includes both aerobic exercise and muscle strengthening.
Clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Washington, Dr. Laura Baker, and the research team found in their study that older adults with mild cognitive impairment experience significant improvements in executive functioning after six months of aerobic exercise completed four times per week.
More specifically, another study out of the University of Pittsburgh found that exercise training increases the size of your hippocampus.
Why does that matter? Your hippocampus and cerebellum are the two locations in your brain that researchers found to have the most granule cells, which have the highest rate of neurogenesis.
And neurogenesis – creating new neural pathways in your brain – can happen for the rest of your life. So, it’s worth boosting your physical activity to increase your neuroplasticity.
Which, sadly, isn’t the norm these days.
In fact, more than 80% of adults miss the mark for both aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities.
Which, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, should be at least 2.5 to 5 hours per week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity. As far as muscle strengthening, the recommended dosage of moderate-intensity strengthening is at least two days a week.
Of course, if you can afford to do more, you’ll benefit more. On the flip side, if you have a chronic condition (which is, unfortunately, too common), that’s ok – simply do what you can.
It doesn’t matter if it’s walking, running, biking, dancing or prancing – just move. Even something as minimal as a walk has real health benefits.
In fact, research from the University of Maryland claims that even a 15-minute daily walk helps. Researchers published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society that moderate exercise (yes, walking included) helps to reverse shrinking of the brain’s outer layer in both healthy seniors and those with mild cognitive impairment.
Strength training is also important in maintaining brain health, which you can do even in the form of seated chair exercises.
And it goes without saying, there are, of course, added physical benefits of getting your exercise on.
As a friendly extra push toward regular exercise – for adults and older adults, any type of physical activity can lower your risk of:
- Early death
- Coronary heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Type 2 diabetes
- Breast and colon cancer
Plus, check out this heatmap that illustrates the direct correlation between a sedentary lifestyle and the risk of mortality in adults.
But I digress. This article is about how to protect your brain from cognitive decline.
To recap: Prioritize your weekly aerobic exercise and muscle strengthening. If you can, commit to four days a week of aerobic movement and two days a week of muscle strengthening.
#2. Be aware and heart-conscious with your diet
The importance of maintaining a healthy, nutritious diet cannot be overstated.
Heart-healthy diets, like the Mediterranean and Mediterranean DASH diets, can help with maintaining your cognition.
The Mediterranean diet consists of adding more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, shellfish, beans, nuts, olive oil and healthy fats to your diet while consuming less red meat and processed foods.
Another similar one is the Mediterranean DASH diet (DASH for dietary approaches to stop hypertension). Along the same vein, it consists of adding more fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, fish, poultry, beans, seeds, nuts and vegetables to your diet while aiming to eliminate sodium, sugar and red meat.
For simplicity’s sake, here’s a snapshot overview:
Regardless of whether or not you follow such diets, the main takeaway is to focus on taking care of your heart and reducing cardiovascular risks through your diet.
Why? Ailments like diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure take a toll on your memory by damaging tiny vessels in your brain.
Take the story of Max Lugavere, author of Genius Foods, and his mother, Kathy, for example. Kathy was diagnosed with early memory loss and was left to fend for herself with only an ineffective prescription.
So, Max did what any caretaking son would do and researched his mom’s condition, which is when he came across the interesting insight of “striking similarities between the brain cells in Alzheimer’s disease and the muscle cells in people with Type 2 diabetes.”
A powerful way to keep tabs on what goes into that precious body of yours is to log what you eat in a food journal. While it may seem like a tedious task, it’s a worthwhile one to try out for at least a week or two, so you can make an accurate diet evaluation and adjust if needed.
The reason why a food journal works so well is it lays out in clear daylight what exactly you ate during the day without you having to rely on your memory or a gut (pun intended) feeling. It allows you to document an accurate snapshot of all that you ingest for the day, so you can better gauge what to add or eliminate.
You might be surprised by what you reveal to yourself.
After all, 96% of people make decisions on autopilot, including what to have for lunch or dinner. That’s the percentage in great Britain anyway.
So, it’s likely that you have a snacking habit done on autopilot without consciously thinking about what you’re ingesting (which we’re all guilty of).
It’s worth calling it out into the open so you can consciously adjust your diet accordingly.
To sum up, the nutrients you feed your brain highly impact its health.
#3. Don’t skimp on your sleep
The third tip for taking care of your cognitive health is to get adequate rest and sleep.
Sure, easier said than done.
After all, a startling 100+ million people suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), with 50-70 million of those people being US adults. Yikes – that’s one in 12 people in the US who suffer from the sleep condition.
Plus, if you have OSA there’s a 39-58% chance you also have insomnia. For insomniacs, it works the other way around, where 43% of older people with chronic insomnia have undiagnosed sleep apnea.
But, if you can work on getting sufficient sleep, it will help you prevent memory loss. Conditions like sleep apnea and insomnia can mess with your memory and clarity of thinking.
How can you get more sleep?
If you have insomnia or sleep apnea, look into continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, which claim the gold standard treatment for people who suffer from OSA.
Another way to sleep more soundly is to limit your time around electronic devices. Which is way easier said than done, because they’re everywhere. This includes your TV, which seniors are notoriously addicted to.
So much so that people over age 65 watch an average of 47 hours and 13 minutes of TV each week (not to mention the other side effects that come with that much tube time).
The reason why it’s important to shorten your time in front of digital devices is the blue lights from the screens send “stay awake” messages to your brain, which can decrease vital sleep hormones like melatonin and make it tricky for you to relax and get into a deep sleep.
Some good news: If you commit to Tip #1 of exercising regularly, that also helps with getting solid nighttime rest. Researchers found that seniors who exercise may gain 41 minutes of sleep at night and take half the amount of time to fall asleep.
Looking to catch more z’s? Get these 11 sleep tips for a more restful night.
Once you’re well-rested, you’ll better tackle the next tip during your waking hours.
#4. Add to your growth experiences
This one’s my favorite tip because it gets you out of your comfort zone (you know, where all the good stuff happens) – create new growth experiences for yourself as a way to increase your brain plasticity and protect against cognitive decline.
First things first – what’s a growth experience?
For our purposes, it’s a new and exciting experience where you challenge yourself to think and act differently. It’s a way to create new neural pathways when you learn something new.
One of the most powerful ways to maintain your cognitive health is to partake in activities that involve the motor, auditory and visual parts of your brain.
Why? It engages your corpus callosum in your brain, which makes you better at complex problem-solving and improves your coordination.
So, think beyond puzzles and games to truly make a long-term impact on your neuroplasticity.
My students and clients gain the most success in this area of growth experiences by finding clarity on their retirement lifestyles. They drum up more profound experiences based on their passions and they find purpose.
(If you’re interested in awakening your purpose and haven’t watched the free workshop video yet, check out How to Live a Purposeful Retirement Lifestyle.)
Another way to increase your neuroplasticity and bolster your cognition is to commit to lifelong learning.
A study published on behalf of the American Academy of Neurology found that lifelong cognitive activity supports better cognitive performance, beyond the scope of Alzheimer’s biomarkers.
Another way of looking at your brain health is to take on the mantra, “use it or lose it.”
So, learning new and active hobbies and skills increases the efficiency of your brain activity and lifts your neuroplasticity and cognitive health overall.
#5. Socially engage with people
Finally, the fifth way to protect against cognitive decline is to be socially active.
And, yes, you can stay connected while being socially distant and across many miles, too. Just leverage technology using your choice of four easy-to-use video chat apps (in case you’re unfamiliar, I break down how to use each one, so the tech isn’t overwhelming). Or these 15 best retirement apps that will help you connect in other ways.
While keeping up an active social calendar isn’t for everyone, it’s vital to maintain at least some sort of social interaction on a regular basis.
In addition to the numerous science-backed health benefits of being social, it certainly has its place in your cognitive health.
According to the National Institute on Aging:
“Positive indicators of social well-being may be associated with lower levels of interleukin-6 in otherwise healthy people.
And Interleukin-6 is an inflammatory factor connected to age-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease (among a slew of others).
What’s more, social activity reduces your risk of dementia and delays prevented cognitive impairment, which is what Valerie C. Crooks and colleagues found in their study of over 2,200 older women.
Valerie and her fellow researchers also found that the size of the social network matters. People with larger social networks are 26% less likely to develop dementia compared to people who have smaller social circles.
So, in an effort to amplify the importance of social interaction for seniors, get out of your comfort zone and meet new friends.
Better yet, engage with people who align with your “circle of influence” rather than your “circle of concern.”
In other words, hang out with people who contribute to your growth experiences, values and energy level; not people who are merely interested in gossip and fear-driven topics.
Basically, if you surround yourself with people who encourage your goals, purpose and values, you’ll reap even more benefits that will fuel the other vital parts of your health and life.
You can rewire your brain to protect against cognitive decline.
By following these five simple tips, not only will you improve your neuroplasticity, but you’ll also reap other benefits like a healthier, more engaged, and fulfilling lifestyle.
Want to find more purpose? Watch this video training on How to Live a Purposeful Retirement Lifestyle.
Here’s to safeguarding against losing your most precious asset: your cognition.
To learn more about the aging brain, check out our comprehensive guide. Inside, you’ll find information on how to protect your brain health, exercises to keep your mind sharp, and tips for staying mentally active as you age.