Cognitive decline is a condition that is often associated with aging, but even middle-aged people can experience memory loss or cognition issues.
The Alzheimer’s Association says that more than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. By 2050, that number could rise to as high as 16 million people. More than 747,000 Canadians are living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia, says the Canadian Alzheimer’s Association.
Although there is no definitive way to prevent dementia, living a long, vibrant life may be possible by encouraging some healthy habits for the brain. It is never too late or too early to begin health and lifestyle changes.
Becoming more active can improve brain volume, reduce risk for dementia and improve thinking and memory skills. The journal Neurology found that older people who vigorously exercise performed better on cognitive tests than others of the same age, placing them at the equivalent of 10 years younger. Increased blood flow that occurs with physical activity may help generate new neurons in the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved with learning and memory.
The Harvard Medical School says aerobic exercise may help improve brain tissue by improving blood flow and reducing the chances of injury to the brain from cholesterol buildup in blood vessels.
The Alzheimer’s Association indicates that evidence shows smoking increases the risk of cognitive decline. Smoking can impair blood flow to the brain and cause small strokes that may damage blood vessels.
Eat healthy foods
Foods that are good for the heart and blood vessels also are good for the brain. These include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish-based proteins, unsaturated fats, and foods containing omega-3 fatty acids. Neurologists state that, while research on diet and cognitive function is limited, diets, such as Mediterranean and Mediterranean-DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), may contribute to a lower risk of cognitive issues.
Caffeine may help boost memory performance and brain health. A Journal of Nutrition study found people ages 70 and older who consumed more caffeine scored better on tests of mental function than those who consumed less caffeine. Caffeine may help improve attention span, cognitive function and feelings of well-being. Information from Psychology Today also indicates caffeine may help in the storage of dopamine, which can reduce feelings of depression and anxiety. In addition, compounds in cocoa and coffee beans may improve vascular health and help repair cellular damage due to high antioxidant levels.
Work the brain
Engaging in mentally stimulating activities can create new brain connections and more backup circuits, states Dr. Joel Salinas, a neurologist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. Working the brain through puzzles, reading and participating in social situations can stimulate the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a molecule essential for repairing brain cells and creating connections between them.
A good way to combine these lifestyle factors is to take an exercise class with friends, mixing the social, stimulation and exercise recommendations together. Cognitive decline can come with aging, but through healthy habits, people can reduce their risk of memory loss and dementia.