When we consider all of the ways that our health can decline, we don't usually think about cognitive function. Our minds still turn first to weight gain, arthritis, high cholesterol, or heart problems. As dementia and Alzheimer's become an increasing part of our dialog, however, the more it becomes a part of the same conversation.
I worry, though, that we're simply afraid of cognitive decline, rather than approaching our brain's health with the same resolve and determination that we do the rest of our health. I'm a health guy, but I'm not just concerned with how much I run or what I'm eating. I try to take a holistic approach to my health, and that includes thinking in the long-term: like taking care of my mind.
Sure, there are some factors beyond our control and things we don't yet understand. But there are plenty of things we know help brain health and cognitive function throughout our lives. The more we can do to keep our brains sharp now, the better chance we have at staying mentally fit as a fiddle.
So how do you ensure optimal cognitive function throughout your life?
Top Tactics to Prevent Mental Decline
1) Do mental gymnastics.
One of the best things you can do for your brain's health is to simply keep it engaged. Give yourself puzzles, problems to solve, information to learn, and challenges to overcome. One of our primary failings, as we age, is settling into complacency. Rather than engaging the brain with reading, taking in new information, or stretching the brain's “plasticity,” we grow comfortable in front of our televisions and smartphones (both of which are fine in moderation).
Even activities like art and music can stimulate the brain in the right ways. Do word puzzles, math problems, and things that force you to think. Staying mentally active, be it through work or leisure, will keep your mind healthy.
2) Do actual gymnastics.
Maybe I don't mean literal gymnastics. But I do mean exercise. There is a clear and proven connection between physical activity and brain health. This is because regular exercise increases the number of blood vessels that bring oxygen-rich blood to the brain while also stimulating the development of nerve cells and synapses.
Ultimately, for us, that means that physical activity encourages the regeneration of our brain tissue over time. This cell turnover is vital to long-term brain health. Runners (and walkers) especially have been linked to the prevention of death by Alzheimer’s, with a study showing that runners who ran 15 miles each week were 40 percent less likely to develop the shrinkage in the brain that leads to Alzheimer’s.
3) Focus on a healthy social life.
Having close friends can keep cognitive decline at bay. A vibrant social life has been shown in studies to prevent dementia and like diseases. This is likely due to a variety of factors, such as improved mental health, increased mental stimulation, and social engagement. Lifelong social connections have been proven to help cognitive function.
4) Maintain healthy eating habits.
What you eat can impact your brain. We all have heard of eating “brain food,” and there is some truth to that. A highly nutritional diet that emphasizes fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean meats (like fresh fish) and healthy fats (like olive oil) has been known to decrease chances of developing dementia. This is likely due to the reduction of blood pressure, which in turn decreases stress on the heart and brain.
5) Manage your stress and anxiety.
While mental health disorders have not been linked to further cognitive decline in old age, chronic stress and anxiety in the present can increase blood pressure and cause problems in your sleeping habits, which do affect your brain's function and health. Taking care of your mental health can also guard your brain's functioning in the long-term.
6) Sleep tight.
I've written at length about the benefits of a good night's sleep, so I'll keep it brief here. Deep REM sleep encourages cell turnover and regeneration, including that of our brain cells and synapses. This means that getting consistently good sleep is actually refreshing your brain and renewing its elasticity over time.
7) Mind your numbers.
Your numbers—blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar—can all play a role in the development of dementia. Cutting your intake of alcohol and tobacco can reduce your risk, as well as modifying your diet. Cutting down on unnecessary sugars and carbs, and adopting a diet that promotes nutrition is where you want to be. Remember, you want to adopt behaviors that encourage healthy cell turnover, the healthy regeneration of brain tissue, and the flow of oxygen-rich blood. Prioritizing healthy numbers in these areas will improve your physical health overall, but also your cognitive function.
While we can't guarantee the prevention of cognitive decline, we can take many preventative measures along the way. Living well helps us ensure we get the most enjoyment out of the lives we lead—from career and hobbies to time with our friends and family. Taking care of our bodies in the now is well worth the investment.
What strategies do you employ to get your mind engaged and exercised? Share your top tricks & tips in the comments.