A Guide to Cognitive Fitness

In this Special Health Report, Harvard Medical School doctors share a six-step program that can yield important and lasting results. Together these “super 6” can strengthen your intellectual prowess, promote your powers of recall, and protect the brain-based skills that are essential for full, rewarding, and independent living. From simple and specific changes in eating to ways to challenge your brain, this is guidance that will pay dividends for you and your future.

A Guide to Cognitive Fitness Cover

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What is cognitive fitness? Cognitive fitness goes far beyond memory. It embraces thinking, learning, recognition, communication, and sound decision-making. Cognitive fitness is the bedrock of a rewarding and self-sufficient life.

A Guide to Cognitive Fitness will show you how to sidestep threats to your brain’s wellness. You’ll learn how to build a “cognitive reserve” to address your brain’s changes. Most of all, you’ll shape and secure fulfilling and lasting mental fitness.

As never before, you can attain lasting brain health. Harvard Medical School doctors have identified six steps which, together, can spur and protect cognitive fitness. 

This multi-pronged plan includes and integrates proven approaches like optimal nutrition, exercise, stress reduction, social interaction, sleep, and stimulating activities. By incorporating simple, specific changes into your daily routine, you can add years of enduring mental stamina and vitality.

Prepared by the editors of Harvard Health Publishing in consultation with Alvaro Pascual-Leone, MD, PhD Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School Chief for the Division of Cognitive Neurology and Director of the Berenson-Allen Center for Noninvasive Brain Stimulation, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. 53 pages. (2017)

  • Cognitive fitness: Your No. 1 health goal
    • How to test your cognitive fitness
    • Six steps to cognitive health
  • How cognitive function is shaped over a lifetime
    • Medical conditions that affect the brain
    • Heart disease and stroke
    • Diabetes
    • Obesity
    • Dementia
    • Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
    • Alcohol, cigarettes, and illicit drugs
    • Over-the-counter and prescription drugs
  • STEP 1: Eat a plant-based diet
    • Best diets for cognitive fitness
    • Brain-draining foods
  • STEP 2: Exercise regularly
    • The many benefits of exercise
    • What type of exercise is best for your brain?
  • STEP 3: Get enough sleep 
    • Sleep stages and memory
    • Sleep and inflammation
    • Strategies for better sleep 
  • STEP 4: Manage your stress
    • What happens to your brain when you’re stressed?
    • Ways to manage stress
  • STEP 5: Nurture social contacts
    • How social connections affect cognition
    • How to widen your social network
  • STEP 6: Continue to challenge your brain 
    • The cardinal rules of mental stimulation
  • Resources
  • Glossary

We are living longer than ever before. Human life expectancy has grown spectacularly over
the past few decades, thanks to advances in public health and medicine. With maturity comes
a wealth of experience and knowledge. Yet age also brings an increasing risk for major medical
conditions. Brain problems are a particular concern as we grow older. According to the
World Health Organization, Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases will affect one out of every
five people at some point in life, and these conditions are the main cause of lifelong disability
The good news is that declining brain health and cognitive loss are not inevitable. Drawing on
decades of research, this report highlights six pillars of brain health that can help you sustain
good brain function and cognitive fitness (the ability to learn, reason, remember, and adapt
your thinking processes) into old age.
Maintaining cognitive fitness requires far more than a simple “train your brain” program or
diet, as some quick-fix online programs suggest. Research confirms that retaining mental
sharpness requires certain lifestyle interventions, working in concert—specifically, adjusting
what and how you eat, how much you exercise, how you deal with life’s challenges, and how
you interact with others. If you turn these behaviors into habits that you can sustain over the
long term, that will have dramatic effects not only on your cognitive fitness, but also on your
overall health.
The earlier you start, the better. Evidence suggests that the more cognitively fit you are
throughout your life, the better armed your brain will be against the assaults of aging—including
illness and any stressful events you might face. You may even be able to prevent certain
brain problems from occurring in the first place, rather than having to combat them when
they arise.
Good brain health is more than the absence of disease. It’s optimizing your brain function as
you age. In the process, you not only lower your risk for age-related cognitive decline and brain
diseases, but also improve your overall health and well-being.

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