Every brain changes with age, and mental function changes along with it. Mental decline is common, and it's one of the most feared consequences of aging. But cognitive impairment is not inevitable. Here are 12 ways you can help reduce your risk of age-related memory loss.
1. Get mental stimulation
Through research with mice and humans, doctors suspect that brainy activities stimulate new connections between nerve cells and may even help the brain generate new cells, developing neurological "plasticity" and building up a functional reserve that provides a hedge against future cell loss.
Any mentally stimulating activity should help to build up your brain. Read, take courses, try "mental gymnastics," such as word puzzles or math problems Experiment with things that require manual dexterity as well as mental effort, such as drawing, painting, and other crafts.
2. Get physical exercise
Research shows that using your muscles may also help your mind. Animals who exercise regularly increase the number of tiny blood vessels that bring oxygen-rich blood to the region of the brain that is responsible for thought. Exercise also spurs the development of new nerve cells and increases the connections between brain cells (synapses). This results in brains that are more efficient, plastic, and adaptive, which translates into better performance in aging animals. Exercise also lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, fights diabetes, and reduces mental stress, all of which can help your brain as well as your heart.
3. Improve your diet
Good nutrition can help your mind as well as your body. Here are some specifics:
- Keep your calories in check. In both animals and humans, a reduced caloric intake has been linked to a lower risk of mental decline in old age.
- Eat the right foods. That means reducing your consumption of saturated fat and cholesterol from animal sources and of trans-fatty acids from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils.
- Remember your Bs. Three B vitamins, folic acid, B6, and B12, can help lower your homocysteine levels, high levels of which have been linked to an increased risk of dementia. Fortified cereal, other grains, and leafy green vegetables are good sources of B vitamins.
4. Improve your blood pressure
High blood pressure in midlife increases the risk of cognitive decline in old age. Use lifestyle modification to keep your pressure as low as possible. Stay lean, exercise regularly, limit your alcohol to two drinks a day, reduce stress, and eat right.
5. Improve your blood sugar
Diabetes is an important risk factor for dementia. You can fight diabetes by eating right, exercising regularly, and staying lean. But if your blood sugar stays high, you'll need medication to achieve good control.
6. Improve your cholesterol
High levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol increase the risk of dementia, as do low levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol. Diet, exercise, weight control, and avoiding tobacco will go a long way toward improving your cholesterol levels. But if you need more help, ask your doctor about medication.
7. Consider low-dose aspirin
Observational studies suggest that long-term use of aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may reduce the risk of dementia by 10%–55%. It's hopeful information, but it's preliminary. Experts are not ready to recommend aspirin specifically for dementia.
8. Avoid tobacco
Avoid tobacco in all its forms.
9. Don't abuse alcohol
Excessive drinking is a major risk factor for dementia. If you choose to drink, limit yourself to two drinks a day. But if you use alcohol responsibly, you may actually reduce your risk of dementia. At least five studies have linked low-dose alcohol with a reduced risk of dementia in older adults.
10. Care for your emotions
People who are anxious, depressed, sleep-deprived, or exhausted tend to score poorly on cognitive function tests. Poor scores don't necessarily predict an increased risk of cognitive decline in old age, but good mental health and restful sleep are certainly important goals.
11. Protect your head
You may be surprised to learn that moderate to severe head injuries early in life increase the risk of cognitive impairment in old age. Concussions increase risk by a factor of 10.
12. Build social networks
Strong social ties have been associated with lower blood pressure and longer life expectancies.
June 2006 update