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October 8, 2020 • read
How to keep your cognitive skills sharp as you age
Forgetting dates, walking into a room only to forget why you’re there, and hitting a mental roadblock when looking for a word mid-conversation. These are all signs of cognitive decline. For many, they’re an annoying but natural aspect of aging. For others, they’re an early sign of Alzheimer’s and other diseases that affect your brain.
Fortunately, the brain is dynamic. Neuroplasticity means that our minds are flexible. We can improve our mental abilities and slow down degenerative disease through training. By making behavioural changes and healthier lifestyle choices, we can keep our minds firing on all cylinders long into old age.
Humans are complex, but many powerful health measures are simple. Below, we’ve listed some habits and techniques that are proven to ward off cognitive decline in your golden years.
Exercise doesn’t need to involve daily workout sessions and a gruelling weight-lifting regimen. Studies show that just a little bit of daily exercise goes a long way in protecting your mental acumen.
A study on 165 older adults found that higher cardiovascular fitness was associated with improved performance on spatial memory tasks. Another study looked at 124 adults aged 60 to 75 years who underwent a 6-month walking and flexibility training program. The results showed that the walking group performed significantly better at cognitive control tasks at the end of the study. These findings prove that you don’t need to go nuts in the gym to see big mental results. Instead, you can start with a daily walking routine.
Reading every night provides tons of mental benefits. Reading habitually is associated with a high level of cognitive ability throughout your lifetime. Plus, the same study suggests that frequent reading can protect against old-age cognitive decline.
You don’t necessarily have to read before bed, of course, but doing so has the dual benefit of easing you into a good night’s sleep. This brings us to the next habit.
Get eight hours of sleep each night
A poor night’s sleep takes a toll on your cognitive ability the morning after. If you need any more evidence, a study found that every hour of reduced sleep was associated with a 0.67% decline in cognitive performance. Quality shut-eye leads to improved cognitive performance and can slow down age-related brain atrophy.
Senior citizens are also more at risk for obstructive sleep apnea, which interrupts cognitive processes. Visit a doctor or a sleep specialist if you find that you’re chronically tired, even if you’ve slept a full eight hours. It might be that your breathing is suffering overnight.
Play brain games
Studies show that we can protect ourselves against age-related decline by playing cognitive training games. When older adults were tasked with playing brain games for 90 days, the study found increased brain volume and lasting changes in neural activity afterward.
Thanks to neuroplasticity, playing mentally-stimulating games like Sudoku can help keep your mind active and youthful in old age. Playing games is like a mental workout session. Over time you’ll get fitter and will find mental puzzles even more enjoyable.
Never stop learning
You’re never too old to learn new things. Taking online courses through EdX, Coursera, Udemy, or a college or university can help keep your mind active at any age. Another option is to learn a foreign language, either through self-learning, a private tutor, or group classes.
Language learning is an excellent self-study option that can enrich your life while traveling in your retirement years. Wouldn’t you like to connect with the locals at your beachfront getaway, or chat with the bartender in his native tongue? Learning a foreign language gives you the chance to get a deeper travel experience and exercise your brain at the same time.
Eat a nutritious diet
Your diet plays a major role in your mental performance later in life. A diet rich in antioxidants, folates, fatty acids, and B vitamins reduces the risk of stroke, dementia, and cognitive impairment with age. If you need help making better dietary choices, consider speaking with a dietitian or naturopath.
It’s hard to get a full supply of essential vitamins, minerals, and health-boosting superfoods through our diets every day. Fortunately, studies have shown that certain health supplements can assist in preventing age-related decline, including:
- Vitamins B6, B9, and B12
- Vitamins E and D
- Omega-3 fatty acids
Before taking a new health supplement, you should first visit a physician or naturopathic doctor as many supplements can interfere with medications you may be currently taking.
Pick up a new hobby
We’re creatures of habit. When hobbies ingrain as habits, they eventually shape the course of our lives. Daily hobbies can provide the physical or mental challenge you need to leap out of bed and take on the day with pep in your step. A study of 303 elderly people found that increased leisure activities helped with healthy cognitive aging, and can prevent depression later in life.
Gardening, swimming, creative writing, or playing a musical instrument are a few ideas you can try out. Once you find something you enjoy, try committing to it for 90 days and notice the positive differences it makes in your life.
Stay sharp, see a professional
There’s no better preventative medicine than taking care of your body and stimulating your mind every day. Neuroplasticity, healthy habit formation, sleep, and nutrition can help preserve the healthy function of your body and minds as you age.
Sometimes even our best efforts aren’t enough to fight off cognitive decline. If your cognitive abilities have slipped, consider visiting a naturopath or functional medicine practitioner. It’s never too late to make a change for the better.