A lot of older adults laugh off the process of aging. They forget where they put their keys and say, “Oh, man, I sure am getting older!” But cognitive decline is not an inevitable process. You can absolutely stay sharp throughout old age, at any age.
In fact, when it comes to memory, it’s not at all inevitable that memory will worsen in time, says Marwan Sabbagh, MD, a board-certified neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. “Age-related changes are mostly tip-of-the-tongue memory and getting names right, but less related to outright forgetfulness,” he says.
Just like protecting other parts of your body, protecting your brain is critical and essential, he says. “There’s a lot of science around this,” he says. “Really good science, not just me saying, ‘Do this, because I said so.’” In 2017, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine convened panels of experts to analyze everything we know about brain health. While there’s still a lot of research to be done, scientists have found some big clues to ward off cognitive decline.
In honor of Brain Awareness Week, Sabbagh explains the three core ways researchers have determined you can help keep your brain healthy throughout your life.
Physical activity. It should come as no surprise that physical activity is as important for the brain as it is for the body. There’s a lot of evidence, for instance, that getting ample exercise or increasing your exercise can be an effective measure in preventing stroke. In fact, Sabbaugh says, “it’s imperative that people are physically active first.”
For adults, the national recommendation is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week (think brisk walking, swimming, or biking), which is just 30 minutes per day, five times per week. If you’re not getting enough or you’re getting next to no physical activity, increasing your exercise regimen slowly can improve your brain health and overall health.
Blood pressure management. Having high blood pressure (BP) is a huge risk factor for heart disease and stroke. It’s also very likely that having uncontrolled BP may lead to cognitive decline, says Sabbaugh, even Alzheimer’s-related dementia. Especially for those in mid-life, between ages 35 and 65, keeping your blood pressure a healthy 120/80 may slow, prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, according to the scientists.
How do you do it? There are tons of proven ways to reduce blood pressure or keep it within the normal range. These include exercise, maintaining a healthy body mass index (BMI), reducing the amount of sodium in your diet, reducing stress, eliminating caffeine, and quitting cigarettes. Make sure to check your BP regularly, and get in to see your doctor if it’s high. Your doctor may prescribe medications that can help.
Cognitive stimulation. No matter where you’re at in your life, it’s important to never stop challenging your brain. “Brain games and brain-stimulating activities are great for this,” says Sabbaugh. He points to his Dad, who is in his late 80s and learning Spanish, just for fun. “That’s a cognitively-stimulating activity. But games, puzzles, sudoku, anything that keeps you actively engaged are the things that qualify.”
Keep reading. Buy a book of crossword puzzles. Get brain-teaser games for your smartphone. Play trivia with friends. Play Memory with your son or grandson. Learn a language. Do story problems. Just keep challenging yourself, even if you’re not at work everyday or in school—and keep doing them. “Brain games tend to focus on attention, concentration, and processing speed,” says Sabbaugh. “But they help those areas of the brain that are being tested, not everything. And it only lasts while you’re doing it; there’s a decay effect that is rather quick.”
The key point? Mix up the way you challenge your brain, and try to do something stimulating every single day.
This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.
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