What is cognitive aging?
Much like the wear and tear of an old set of car tires, your brain's ability to carry the weight of your cognition -- memory, decision-making, wisdom and learning -- can begin to dull or change. This change is known as cognitive aging. It's not necessarily a sign of Alzheimer's disease or dementia -- a decline in mental sharpness happens to all of us -- but it can impact daily activities such as financial and health care decisions.
Scientifically sound advice.
Write this down -- you might forget. All puns aside, the Institute of Medicine was tasked with addressing the current state of cognitive aging for both health care providers and patients in a report published last month. In "Cognitive Aging: Progress in Understanding and Opportunities for Action," the authors offer three evidence-based ways you can protect your aging brain. Dr. Dan Blazer, chair of the report and professor emeritus of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center, and Dr. Valentin Fuster, director of Mount Sinai Heart and physician-in-chief at the Mount Sinai Hospital, share these three steps and more brain health tips.
1. Be physically active.
Taking part in a simple exercise routine each day such as bicycling, walking or even gardening can provide greater blood supply to the brain and help keep you cognitively and physically active, Blazer explains. "The best evidence we see in terms of maintaining and improving cognitive function is exercise," he says. Exercise fends off many health issues later in life, not just cognitive decline, he adds.
2. Reduce your cardiovascular risk factors.
Cardiovascular risk factors, including high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking can damage tiny vessels in your brain, impacting the way it ages, Fuster says. To reduce risks, quit smoking and maintain a healthy weight and blood pressure. If you have high cholesterol, you should follow your doctor's instructions and follow up with any necessary blood tests, Fuster says. The key is to change any unhealthy habits.
3. Manage your medications.
Do you take multiple medications? "Older adults are sometimes on more medications than they need to be on," Blazer says. "... Many, if not all of them, can potentially affect your cognitive functioning." Check with your doctor to see if your medications have any possible cognitive side effects. For example, sleep medications are known to impact cognitive function, Blazer says. "Asking if you really need to be taking this medication in consultation with a health care professional is an important step to taking care of cognitive health," he says.
4. Maintain a healthy sleep schedule.
If you're already active, healthy and managing your medications, but are still eager to stay sharp, there are a few more actions you can take. For one, maintaining good sleep habits may help. "When you have irregular sleep habits and you're napping during the day or not sleeping well at night, you are not as cognitively sharp when you get up in the morning," Blazer says. "There's a big difference between a 20-minute nap and a two hour nap." Here are 10 ways to get more sleep and maintain sleep hygiene without medication.
5. Stimulate your brain.
Blazer says being intellectually engaged is a valuable way to protect your brain. You can do this by simply reading and tackling puzzles or games that require strategy, such as sudoku, chess or checkers. Download a brain stimulation game to your phone or tablet, and keep it up. If you only dabble in these activities or try for a few months and stop, you won't reap any benefits. "What we think the evidence shows is keeping intellectually engaged does protect one from cognitive decline and maintains cognitive health," Blazer says.
6. Be sociable.
People who are more socially connected to others are better off than those who isolate, Blazer says. Try getting out of the house and spending time around others. You can do this by offering to tutor elementary school students, volunteering or being active in your religious group or community. Blazer says there's little scientific evidence on how social engagement improves brain function, but adds that we shouldn't underestimate its importance.
There is hope.
Blazer says it's important to know that cognitive aging and Alzheimer's disease are two very different issues. In Alzheimer's disease and dementia, there is a clear loss of brain cells. With cognitive aging, the neurons in the brain tend to be maintained -- not lost -- and can be re-established, Blazer says. "That's why we have hope at a more biological level that with the proper stimulation, activities and conditions, we have an opportunity to maintain and improve cognitive function as people age," he says.