How to Maintain Cognitive Vitality
A healthy aging brain and cognitive vitality are so important as we get older. In this article, we'll review the growing list of strategies that older adults, their caregivers, and family members, home health aides, and others can use to promote cognitive vitality in older adults. Similar to the definition in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, we use cognitive vitality to describe “the brain's ability to adapt and learn.”
Here are 8 evidence-based strategies to help the older adults slow the cognitive decline that comes with aging.
1. Reduce chronic stress
Perhaps you think that stress is just a part of life for high-achieving people? Well, you may be surprised to learn that more stress can lead to lower cognitive function. Sadly, it can even speed up the rate of mental decline in seniors. The part of your brain that regulates memory and emotions shrinks under extended periods of very high stress, according to a 2018 study published in Neurology.
Older adults who enjoy relatively low levels of stress and good health can also develop mood disorders like depression or anxiety. If you observe that an older adult in your care is showing signs of depression or chronic anxiety, reach out for medical help. In addition to medical treatment, consider activities that reduce stress such as meditation, yoga and more.
2. Maintain heart health
Cardiovascular health is important to support a healthy aging brain. Keeping the brain supplied with a steady supply of oxygen is critical. The risk of major stroke and vascular dementia is reduced with better heart health, according to the American Stroke Association. Work with your medical doctor to maintain your heart health, based on your own medical profile, risk, diet, and lifestyle.
3. Be careful with over-the-counter medications
Ask your doctor to review both your prescribed and over the counter (OTC) medications with you. Some of these have sedating or anticholinergic properties that could decrease your ability to remember or process information. A 2019 study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that these drugs may be associated with a higher risk of dementia.
- Antihistamines like Benadryl
- Painkillers branded as PM
- Bladder relaxants
- Vertigo or motion sickness treatments
- Anti-itch medications (another use for Benadryl)
- Chronic nerve pain and shingle relievers
- Muscle relaxants
- Anti-Parkinson’s disease medication.
- Anti-psychotic drugs.
- Bladder medication
- Anti-epileptic drugs.
Remember to always take medications in accordance with your physician's recommendations.
4. Train your brain
Researchers at the Community Research Connection group believe that cognitive vitality can be enhanced with learning and training even as people get older. Older adults can play games, use computers, do arts and crafts, and consider connecting with loved ones through social media, phone calls, and email.
Help older adults to commit to continuous learning as they age; it's great for the brain. See below for a shortlist of findings from a neurology study published in MedicalNewsToday.
- Computer use in middle age and later life lowered the risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) by 37%.
- Engaging in social activities, doing crosswords, or playing cards in middle age and later life reduced the risk of MCI by 20%.
- Craft activities lowered the risk of MCI by 42%, but only in later life.
5. Surround yourself with wonderful people
Study evidence is mounting that one of the best predictors of Alzheimer’s Disease among people who play games, do puzzles, and continue to work later in life, is social isolation. According to Alzheimer’s dementia specialist Jessica Langbaum, “People who have a lot of social interactions, particularly in mid-life, have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease in later life." She explains that "There’s something about being around people that is helpful for our brains.”
The good news for older people and their caregivers is that remaining socially active may help with maintaining a healthy aging brain! If you work with older adults, remember to help them to feel connected instead of isolated. They might have grandchildren to visit, people their own age to get to know through mutual interests, volunteer opportunities, and more.
While we don't yet understand how it works, helping someone else pays back with a healthier brain. It's also important for older adults to be with people who understand and support them when they are down. This is a good nugget for home health aides, personal care aides, nursing assistants, and others who provide care and companionship for older adults.
6. Get enough rest and stay physically active
Your brain relies on sleep to put together all the learning it has done in a day and make it available for future use. If your sleep is irregular, too short, or often interrupted, thinking and memory can become foggy. You may also become irritable, a sign your brain sends reminding you to rest. Fortunately, a 2020 systematic review of the research literature revealed that sleep management may actually be an intervention that may help prevent dementia.
In addition, physical activity helps reduce stress and may contribute to the management of mood disorders. Some studies show that regular exercise improves cognitive function in people who already have memory problems, especially for people who have the Alzheimer's gene variant known as" APOE4, according to the National Institute on Aging. That variant appears to be linked to greater susceptibility to Alzheimer's Disease and associated memory loss.
7. Choose foods linked to better brainpower
Avoid over-the-counter-supplements that claim to enhance memory and brain health—there is little evidence that proves their effectiveness in lowering your risk for cognitive decline. Research shows that there are plenty of ways to boost brain function, including eating nutritionally dense superfoods.
Instead, try the MIND diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. This diet combines the most brain-protective elements of the Mediterranean and DASH diets by recommending that you get omega-3 fatty acids from fatty fish, protein, and fiber from plant-based sources, vitamin E from nuts and green leafy vegetables, and flavonoids from berries. Maintain cognitive vitality by eating well.
8. Ignore the Myths!
There are so many other cutting-edge strategies that may help to improve elder cognitive vitality and support a healthy aging brain, including brain stimulation to improve memory, healthy nutrition, and so much more. There are also many myths circulating about cognitive decline among older adults. Some caregivers, older adults, and their family members, home health aides, and others believe that there is nothing that can be done to improve cognitive health. That's simply not true.
Cognitive aging doesn’t mean that older adults face an unavoidable decline in brain processing speed or impairments in reasoning and memory. It can be understood as a series of changes that we learn to compensate for using behavior modification. That's why there are options for caregivers, home health aides, older adults, their family members, and others who want to help elders maintain their cognitive vitality while adapting to age-related changes in cognitive function.
Maureen Friend was a digital marketing apprentice at Caregiver Jobs Now. There she worked closely with Dr. Charlene Brown, an experienced, Board-certified preventive medicine physician and graduate of Harvard Medical School, to research and develop the content for this article. Dr. Brown edited the article for accuracy, the validity of the evidence base used, and clarity.
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