It’s a fact that America’s population is aging. It’s also true that millions more of us will experience cognitive decline in the years ahead. Researchers at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health say that about 15 million Americans will have either Alzheimer’s disease or suffer from mild cognitive decline by 2060. Yet, getting older doesn’t have to signal automatic declines in brain functioning. There are things you can do to keep your mind sharp as you age.
Engage in high-intensity exercise.
McMaster University researchers found that short bouts of intensive exercise over a period of six weeks facilitate performance improvements in high-interference memory. This is the kind of memory that allows you to distinguish your car in a parking lot from another of the same make and model. There was another benefit among those with greater fitness gains: greater increases in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This is a protein that supports brain cell growth function and survival. Although the McMaster University study focused on younger individuals, the hypothesis is that older adults will see high-interference memory benefits from intensive exercise activity, since this type of memory declines as individuals age. Expect more emphasis on studies like this as America’s aging population comes to grip with the debilitating diseases of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Mount Sinai researchers, meanwhile, found that healthy traits such as higher physical endurance and better cognitive function were associated with greater cohesiveness of the working memory brain network. Less-cohesive working memory brain network was linked to suboptimal health habits, such as regular smoking and binge drinking, and traits indicating suboptimal metabolic and cardiovascular health.
Furthermore, the combination of aerobic and resistance exercise has been found to boost brain power in those over the age of 50. Researchers found that aerobic exercise significantly increased cognitive abilities, while resistance training produced pronounced improvements in executive function, memory and working memory. Researchers recommended combination exercise in sessions lasting at least 45 minutes on as many days of the week as possible would most benefit cognition in adults over 50. Interestingly, tai chi also improved cognitive abilities, though researchers cautioned that the finding was based on limited studies, saying that a large clinical trial would need to confirm the results.
Get into yoga and meditation.
Just 25 minutes a day of mindful meditation or yoga, say researchers at the University of Waterloo, can result in improvements in both energy levels and brain function. While specifically mentioning Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation, researchers said the practices focus the conscious processing power of the brain on a small number of targets, such as posing and breathing, and reducing nonessential information processing. The theory is that there may be some carryover benefit afterward, allowing practitioners to better and more easily focus on their conscious everyday life choices. As for energy levels, Hatha yoga produced greater effects than meditation, although both were beneficial. Incidentally, Hatha yoga is the most commonly practiced style of yoga in Western countries.
Listen to music.
What about older parents, family members and peers already in subjective cognitive decline? West Virginia University researchers studying the effect of music and meditation found that these practices may not only improve the sleep, mood, and quality of life in older individuals with subjective cognitive decline, but also may help reverse perceived memory loss and boost cognition. These findings augment an earlier 12-week relaxation study program that found improvements in stress, sleep, well-being and mood in adults with subjective cognitive decline. Improvements were particularly pronounced for study participants involved in the Kirtan Kriya Meditation.
Make it a point to get good sleep.
Everyone knows that a good night’s sleep helps the body heal and restore itself. During sleep, the brain rids itself of metabolic waste products at a faster rate than the waking brain. Research also finds that sleep strengthens both old and new versions (memories) of an experience, thus allowing more adaptive memory use. Why is this important? York University researchers say that sleep exerts a protective effect on memories and helps facilitate their ability to adaptively update. Getting a better night’s sleep should also be a little easier after retirement, since research points to the fact that older adults get about 20 minutes more sleep after they retire than they did before leaving their careers. They’re also less likely to experience nonrestorative (restless) sleep or early morning awakenings.
Have sex more often.
Frequent sexual intercourse also appears to have benefits for the brain, according to research published in the Journals of Gerontology. Verbal fluency and the ability to visually perceive both objects and the space between them improved among survey respondents who indicated they engaged in more regular sexual activity. The research expanded on a 2016 study that found that more sexually active older adults scored higher on cognitive tests than their less-sexually active peers.
Cut back on canola oil.
In the first study to raise concern about canola oil’s potentially harmful effects on the brain, researchers say that long-term use of one of the most commonly-used vegetable oils in the world may be more harmful than healthful to the brain. Specifically, they cited worsened memory, worsened learning ability and weight gain in mice, all which model Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists cautioned that canola oil shouldn’t be considered equivalent to oils with proven health benefits and suggested that a longer-term study may be warranted. In addition to trying to determine if canola oil’s negative effects are specific for Alzheimer’s, researchers also want to find out if the oil could affect the onset and disease course of dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Consume more fish and nuts.
Healthy brain aging, on the other hand, has been linked to dietary intake of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, although study researchers say further research needs to test this hypothesis. This is relatively easy to do and only requires a trip to the supermarket to select fatty fish such as salmon, along with foods rich in alpha-linolenic and stearidonic acid, such as nuts, seeds, and oils. Earlier research showed that reduced omega-3 blood levels are associated with worse cognitive performance and smaller brain volumes.