Health Library

Use It or Lose It: Preventing Cognitive Decline

Mental (Cognitive) Aging

man running on beach Some changes in mental function are common in normal aging. Processing information may take longer. It may also be harder to shift from one task to another. Memory might also not be as sharp as it used to be. However, each person is different. Some experience mental decline while others do not. Many older adults avoid mental decline into their 80s and beyond. The good news is that there are things that can help prevent mental decline.

Three types of mental decline with aging are:

  • Age-related changes in memory. With normal aging, memory can be mildly affected. However, older adults can do as well as younger people on memory tests. They may just need more time.
  • Amnestic mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI is mild memory loss that includes:
  • Misplacing things
  • Forgetting important events or appointments
  • Having problems thinking of the right words
  • Dementia (includes Alzheimer’s disease). This type of mental decline gets worse over time. It cannot be reversed. It affects widespread areas of mental function and memory. Mental decline is severe enough to affect daily functioning.

Risk Factors for Mental Decline

Some things that raise the risk for mental decline are:

If you notice possible signs of mental decline, talk to your doctor. Ask about any health problems you have. Find out if they might be playing a role.

Vital Activities for a Vital Mind

As you age, your body and brain change. For example, complex memory tests may take longer but some mental skills may improve, such as word knowledge. Certain habits can help older adults to learn and adapt better as they age. Here are some things you can do that may help:

Stay Socially Active

Poor social support may raise the risk of mental decline. Older adults who live alone and have limited social ties are most at risk. Be sure to develop a strong social network. Social connections and activities are good for overall health. They spark the mind and challenge people to communicate.

Keep Learning

Keeping your mind active may help improve brain health. Consider doing some activities such as:

  • Reading books, newspapers, or magazines
  • Playing games such as cards, checkers, and crossword puzzles
  • Playing an instrument
  • Going to museums
  • Volunteering
  • Learning a new skill

These activities may help prevent memory loss. However, they may not improve memory.

Exercise

Regular exercise may help improve mental function. This may be because it helps improve mood and reduce stress. Or, it may reduce other risks for mental decline. Talk to your doctor about what exercise would be best for you. Be sure to choose physical activities you enjoy.

Herbs and Supplements

Vitamin and herbs are often touted as cures or ways to prevent mental decline. However, there is little evidence of this. Be sure to talk to your doctor before taking any supplements or herbs. They may not be safe if you have certain health problems. They may also interact with certain medicines.

Eat a Healthful Diet

A healthful, low-fat diet may help protect against mental decline. It may reduce the risk of diseases that contribute to mental decline such as:

Get Help for Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders and sleep problems are common as we get older. It can affect mental function, such as memory and learning. Daytime sleepiness may also be a sign of a sleep disorder. This has been linked with an increased risk for dementia. Your doctor can help to test or treat sleep disorders. For some, good sleep habits such as going to bed and waking up at the same time each day may help.

Seek Help for Other Conditions

Certain health problems, like heart disease, can raise the risk of mental decline. Mental decline may be slowed when these conditions are treated.

Talk to Your Doctor

You may feel embarassed or scared to discuss mental changes with your doctor. Honest communication with your doctor can help to find issues that may be very treatable or the changes may be normal. If changes are more serious, early treatment may help.

Resources

National Council on Aging
https://www.ncoa.org

National Institute on Aging
http://www.nia.nih.gov

Canadian Resources

Mental Health Canada
http://www.mentalhealthcanada.com

Seniors Canada On-line

References

Alzheimer dementia. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:https://www.dynamed.com/condition/alzheimer-dementia.

Alzheimer's disease and non-Alzheimer’s dementia. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: https://www.ebsco.com/products/research-databases/natural-alternative-treatments.

Cognitive health and older adults. National Institute on Aging website. Available at: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/cognitive-health-and-older-adults.

Enhancing memory and mental function. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: https://www.ebsco.com/products/research-databases/natural-alternative-treatments.

Forgetfulness: normal or not? National Institutes of Health National Institute on Aging website. Available at: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/infographics/forgetfulness-normal-or-not.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/mild-cognitive-impairment-mci.

Viera AJ. Preventing cognitive decline. Am Fam Physician. 2022;105(1):13-14.