We all know that habits such as exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, and controlling your weight are good for your physical health. They’re also good for your brain—and protecting your brain health may help you ward off cognitive decline as you age.
We tend to think of the risk of cognitive decline as largely out of our control, but research suggests that only 60%-70% of age-related changes in brain function are genetic. Additional research shows that opportunity exists for individuals to reduce their risk of cognitive impairment later in life, including severe conditions such as full-blown dementia.
It’s never too late to take steps to maintain your cognitive health. Adopt these healthy habits now to keep your brain functioning optimally as you age.
1. Reduce Cardiovascular Risk Factors
Research indicates that many of the same factors that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease also increase the risk of cognitive decline.
As we age, arteries that carry blood to the brain often become hardened or damaged—a condition known as atherosclerosis. The resulting decrease in blood flow to the brain may contribute to impaired cognitive function.
Risk factors for atherosclerosis include high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and other tobacco use, high cholesterol, obesity, lack of exercise, and an unhealthy diet.
Individuals who may be at risk of cognitive impairment related to cerebrovascular disease—known as vascular cognitive impairment—are advised to quit smoking if necessary, treat any hypertension, consume alcohol only in moderation, exercise regularly, and manage their weight.
2. Walk Regularly
Simply walking more can have a marked impact on both your physical and mental health. One study found that people who walked at least six miles a week had less age-related brain shrinkage than those who didn’t walk as much. Walking between six and nine miles per week reduced participants’ risk of memory problems by half.
Specifically, walking and other forms of aerobic exercise may help protect the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in learning and the formation of new memories.
Aim to walk for at least one hour, three times a week, which has been shown to reduce cognitive impairment in individuals with vascular cognitive disorder.
Walking also helps improve risk factors related to heart disease, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
3. Be Physically Active
In addition to walking, other forms of physical activity have been shown to be beneficial for the brain. A combination of aerobic exercise and resistance training has been found to improve cognition, attention, memory, and other brain functions in people over 50. Low-impact activities such as tai chi may also be beneficial, especially for individuals with limited mobility, although more research is needed in this area.
To improve cognitive function and reduce the risk of cognitive decline, researchers recommend an exercise program consisting of both weight training and aerobic activity of moderate intensity, lasting at least 45 minutes per session, as often as possible.
4. Continue to Learn
Continuing to be intellectually engaged and seeking opportunities to learn are activities that are associated with good cognitive health later in life, although more research is needed on specific activities and recommendations.
Some studies suggest that puzzles, such as crosswords or number puzzles, can delay the onset of cognitive decline, while other research shows that learning a second language in adulthood can help prevent cognitive impairment later in life.
5. Get Good Sleep
The importance of restful, restorative sleep cannot be overstated. Good sleep is essential for a healthy immune system, good emotional health, weight management, and proper brain function. Research shows that our brains go through a sort of cleansing process while we sleep, which can help prevent neuron damage that may contribute to cognitive decline.
If you have difficulty sleeping, take steps to improve your sleep, and see a doctor if necessary. Your doctor may be able to prescribe a medication to help with insomnia. You may also be able to save as much as 80% on insomnia medication by using ScriptSave WellRx.
6. Be Socially Engaged
Epidemiological data suggest that social activity can help lower the risk of some health problems among older adults, including cognitive decline. If you live alone or if you’ve been isolated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s especially important to seek out opportunities to connect with others through social activities or community programs, even if it’s simply talking to a friend on the phone or joining an online group.
Karen Eisenbraun is a Certified Holistic Nutrition Consultant. She holds an English degree from Knox College and has written extensively about topics related to holistic health, clinical nutrition, and weight management.