Our cognitive abilities continually shift throughout our lifespans. We progress rapidly during the first few years of life, acquiring skills like language and object permanence. From childhood to adolescence, we continue to develop quickly and learn new information and skills with ease.
Our cognitive abilities remain sharp from early adulthood throughout our 20s and only begin to decline in our 30s. From our 30s on, we battle the creep of cognitive decline.
This cognitive rollercoaster is natural and nothing to be alarmed about. And while we cannot completely avoid cognitive decline as we age, there are various strategies and lifestyle choices that can help keep the mind sharp during the later stages of life. Mental stimulation, physical exercise, healthy eating, quality sleep, stress management, and social engagement are all evidence-based techniques that have been proven to promote cognitive health and slow the creep of cognitive decline.
Keep your mind vibrant and sharp throughout the aging process by implementing the practices outlined below.
One simple rule determines what skills and abilities the brain will maintain: “Use it or lose it.” Challenging the brain with mental activities can help maintain cognitive function, much in the way that physical activity can help maintain fitness. And while becoming a chess grandmaster will likely help you to stave off cognitive decline, there are many other ways to challenge your mind as you age. Activities such as solving puzzles, reading, learning a new language, playing musical instruments, or engaging in strategic games (like chess) can stimulate neural pathways and enhance cognitive flexibility and memory.
Regardless of the activity that you choose, remember that stimulation is the key. The activities you choose should feel difficult and challenge you cognitively. Do your best to regularly engage in mentally stimulating activities and protect yourself against cognitive decline.
Your body is a vessel for your mind, so a strong body and a strong mind often go hand in hand. For example, engaging in regular physical exercise has been linked to improved cognitive function and reduced risk of cognitive decline. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, stimulates the growth of new neurons, and enhances synaptic plasticity. Exercise also helps reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, which are associated with cognitive decline.
Aim for a mix of aerobic exercise and strength training, as different types of physical activities have been shown to offer different benefits. Maintaining a strong body through physical activity is an important aspect of long-term physical and cognitive health, so make sure to remain as active as possible as you age.
As the Blues Brothers declared decades ago, “Everyone needs somebody to love.” Maintaining social connections and strong personal relationships is crucial for cognitive health. Social engagement provides mental stimulation, emotional support, and opportunities for intellectual discussions, which can help preserve cognitive abilities.
Eric Vanwalleghem, facility administrator for Generations Healthcare at Siena Skilled Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Auburn, Calif., has regularly seen the importance of social engagement time and again in the company’s skilled nursing facilities.
“A holistic approach is the key to graceful aging,” Vanwalleghem said. “Nothing is quite so important as a shared sense of community, however. The motivation and support to continue implementing these other strategies comes from the people you love.”
Stay connected with family, friends, and community groups, and consider joining clubs or volunteer organizations to foster social interactions.
Like physical activity, a balanced and nutritious diet is essential for physical and brain health. Establishing a healthy diet that incorporates sufficient amounts of carbohydrates, healthy fats, and proteins is the most important and will help you properly fuel your body and mind.
Research has also identified specific nutrients that support cognitive function, such as omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and B vitamins. Incorporate foods rich in these nutrients—such as fatty fish, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds—into your diet.
Moreover, a brain-healthy diet also avoids excessive intake of saturated fats, processed foods, and sugary beverages, as they can increase the risk of cognitive impairment. As you age, take care of your mind by first taking care of your body. A healthy diet can help you do just that.
Adequate sleep plays a pivotal role in our day-to-day physical and cognitive functioning—many of us know the mental sluggishness that can result from a sleepless night. Unsurprisingly, adequate sleep plays a vital role in our long-term cognitive health. We may not know it, but the brain is hard at work while we sleep; it consolidates memories, clears waste products, and restores its energy. Chronic sleep deprivation can impede the brain from performing these important functions and has been associated with both cognitive decline and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Aim for seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night and establish a consistent sleep routine by avoiding electronic devices before bedtime and creating a calming sleep environment. Not only will you wake up refreshed each day, but your brain will continue to function properly as you age.
In today’s work climate, chronic stress is the rule rather than the exception. This is unfortunate news for the aging generations, as chronic stress can have detrimental effects on cognitive function. Chronic stress impairs memory, attention, and decision-making abilities in the short and long term.
Fortunately, the negative effects of chronic stress can be countered by a number of stress management techniques like meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, and other hobbies, which promote relaxation and reduce stress levels. Regular practice of these techniques can enhance cognitive resilience and improve overall well-being.
So, take these research findings as an excuse to relax and engage in your favorite hobbies. Who would have thought that relaxation could help you to keep your mind sharp as you age?
Keeping your mind sharp as you age is largely within your control. By implementing lifestyle choices such as mental stimulation, regular physical exercise, healthy eating, quality sleep, stress management, and social engagement, you can promote well-being and reduce the risk of cognitive decline. Remember to consult with healthcare professionals before making any significant changes to your routine. Embrace these strategies as lifelong habits to enjoy a vibrant and sharp mind throughout the aging process. With dedication and some luck, you will still be able to beat your grandkids at chess years from now.
A version of this article was published by The Daily Herald. It has been republished here with permission.