Cognitive Health Management is Key to Independence As We Age

In the first of our three-part healthy aging blog series, we addressed the physical factors that influence and ultimately determine our well-being over a lifetime. The second focused on how proactively evaluating and managing mental (emotional) health factors is equally as important in maintaining our independence and quality of life as we age. This final installment focuses on cognition (brain function) – the third pillar of the National Institute of Aging’s healthy aging guidelines. Read on to learn how incorporating small, positive physical and mental health changes can impact and support healthy cognition as we age.

As a quick reminder, the National Institute on Aging’s three goals for healthy aging are:

  • Actively managing physical and mental health
  • Live as independently as possible
  • Maintain quality of life

To achieve these three goals, you need to assess the following:

  • Physical health, as addressed here
  • Mental health (emotional), as addressed here
  • Cognitive health (brain function) like:
    • How do current life choices prevent or contribute to the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s?
    • Engagement in mentally stimulating activities
    • Pursuit of learning new skills

What is Cognitive Health?

Cognitive health is basic brain health. Cognition is the ability to think, learn, and remember, and can change as we age. While some older adults will develop Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, many experience more modest changes in memory and clarity of thought. Your brain is your best ally in maintaining your overall independence, and research shows that healthy eating, getting enough sleep, staying active and social, and learning new skills can keep older adults cognitively healthy.

Taking Care of Cognitive Health

If you think your small daily health choices don’t matter, think again. An NIH study scored 3,000 participants on five health lifestyle factors:

  • At least 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity
  • Not smoking
  • Not drinking heavily
  • A high-quality Mediterranean-style diet
  • Engagement in mentally stimulating activities -reading, writing letters, and playing games

They found that those who followed at least four healthy lifestyle behaviors had a 60%(!) lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Even participants who followed only two behaviors lowered their risk by 37%. While no direct cause and effect can be drawn from an observational study like this one, it is clear that making small, daily healthy changes can add up to significant health benefits, including mitigation of Alzheimer’s risk. Currently, the National Institute of Aging is funding over 100 clinical trials to discover how we might prevent Alzheimer’s and other forms of age-related cognitive decline through non-drug interventions such as diet, exercise, sleep, or combination therapies.

Additionally, new clinical trials are evaluating the benefits of tightly controlling blood pressure on healthy cognitive aging. Previous studies found that intensive blood pressure control may slow age-related brain damage and mild cognitive impairment, both of which can increase the risk for Alzheimer’s and related dementias. Research has also shown promising connections between brain health and gastrointestinal conditions, hearing and vision loss.

Basically, if you follow our suggestions for parts one and two of this blog series, you will also be proactively protecting your independence by maintaining your ability to think, remember, and learn.

How Cognitive Training Affects Health Outcomes

If you watch TV or use the internet, you have inevitably seen ads for “brain training” or “brain game” computer and smartphone-based programs claiming they can improve your cognition. While some of these interventions show promise, there is no definitive scientific proof that these applications do indeed improve your brain health. However, there is evidence that exercising your brain by learning a new skill can improve your overall memory.

A 2013 study of adults 60 and older showed that sustained engagement in learning new, cognitively demanding skills, specifically quilting, digital photography, or both, for an average of over sixteen hours a week, enhanced their memory significantly. Learning a new, cognitively challenging skill, craft, game, or instrument may not only improve your overall mood, but prevent memory loss.

For those of you who still want more ways to keep your mind sharp as you age, here are six suggestions from Harvard Health:

  • Keep learning – A higher level of education is associated with better mental and cognitive function in older adults, so keep your memory strong by being mentally active through the pursuit of new academic and skill-based endeavors
  • Use all of your senses – The more senses you engage in learning something new, the more your brain will be involved in retaining that information/memory
  • Believe in yourself – Believe it or not, how you think about aging directly impacts how you age, if you hold positive views about yourself and your aging process, you are more likely to maintain your memory
  • Prioritize your brain use – You do not need to expend mental energy looking for your keys or remembering your best friend, birthday, utilize smartphone reminders, calendars, planners, and lists to keep routine information available
  • Repeat what you want to know – When you want to remember something you just read, heard, or thought, repeat it out loud or write it down, repetition builds memory
  • Space it out – Repetition is the most important learning tool (we know we just said that), however, it is best not to repeat something many times in a short period, instead revisit and repeat the information you wish to remember over increasing longer periods of time

TL;DR (too long, didn’t read): Proactively managing your physical, mental, and cognitive health are key to healthy aging, and even small changes can have a big impact on your overall well being. Implementing the tips we shared in part one on physical health and part two on mental health will not only improve those areas, but also help maintain and boost your cognitive health. It’s a win-win-win.

Whether you’re already doing some of these things, or need help getting started, our team is her to help. Contact us today for a complimentary consultation.