Growing Old Without Growing Forgetful
Reviewed by: Dr. Steven Knauf, D.C.
By Donna Stark
Getting older isn't always a picnic. But like a good bottle of wine or a pair of leather shoes, some things do get better with age, especially if you take good care of them -- and our brains are no exception. It would be different if we could stop the aging effects on our brains entirely, but since we can’t, our next best option is to nourish and exercise our minds daily.
Although brain care may not sound as fun as drinking a glass of wine or toe-tapping across the dance floor in a pair of comfortable shoes, you’ll be glad you did it in the end.
How Does Memory Change as We Get Older?
Changes in memory and cognition are inevitable as we age but that doesn’t mean that each incidence of forgetfulness we experience is a sign of cognitive deterioration. We all have moments when we misplace our glasses or forget to pick up eggs at the store. The key is understanding the difference. That is why it is good to know how our memory tends to change as we get older. Here are some of the most common issues that can affect an aging brain.
- Short-term memory - Remembering new information (like someone’s name) becomes more difficult
- Recall of details - Recalling specific details from past events becomes a struggle
- Present day and future memory - Forgetting certain tasks (taking medications) or remembering future events (doctor appointments) may decline
- Processing speed - Retrieving information from memory declines and takes longer than it used to
While it’s normal to forget things once in a while, serious memory problems that make it hard to do everyday things are an entirely different story and need to be addressed as quickly as possible.
Is it Forgetfulness or Something More?
Unfortunately, what may be perceived as just forgetfulness may actually be a sign that something else is going on and that it might be time to talk to a doctor. Your doctor may order certain tests or assessments that are designed to help determine the cause of these noticeable and worrisome changes. Here are some of the more serious issues associated with cognitive decline that otherwise healthy people may experience in their lifetime.
Mild Cognitive Impairment
People with MCI are generally able to take care of themselves and complete their day-to-day tasks, but they may have more issues with memory and cognitive abilities than others their age. Genetics and certain conditions, such as diabetes, depression, and stroke, may affect a person’s risk for mild cognitive impairment. MCI may also be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease.
Dementia is not a single disease. It’s a term used to describe a group of symptoms associated with a decline in memory, reasoning, language, or other thinking skills that are severe enough to impair daily life and limit independence. Dementia symptoms are progressive, so seek the help of a medical professional as quickly as possible.
Alzheimer’s disease is a specific brain disease that falls under the dementia umbrella. Symptoms will gradually get worse over time and may include disorientation, confusion, and behavior changes. Eventually, it may even become difficult to speak, swallow, and walk. The majority of people with Alzheimer's are 65 and older, and unfortunately, there is no cure.
Although some types of memory decline are normal with aging, severe impairment may signal neurodegenerative disorders like the above. Fortunately, studies have shown that memory can be sharpened at any age by adopting certain lifestyle factors.
The Best Ways to Improve Cognition and Prevent Cognitive Decline
Most people understand the importance of taking the proper steps to maintain optimal physical health throughout their lives, but many do not do the same for their brain health until it’s too late. Make sure the odds are in your favor as you age by adopting the following beneficial lifestyle habits.
Vitamins and supplements - Take your vitamins and dietary supplements! Vitamins B and E, omega-3 fatty acids, and ginkgo biloba may help slow cognitive decline.
Sleep quality - Aim for at least seven hours of sleep per night and speak to your doctor if you are having trouble achieving that. Sleep deprivation has been shown to contribute to, and exacerbate, cognitive problems.
Chronic diseases - Chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, can increase the risk of cognitive impairment. It is vital to keep these issues under control.
Mental stimulation - Enhance cognition with mental stimulation. Reading, challenging your mind with daily puzzles, and learning new skills are easy and fun ways to do so.
Social activities - Meaningful social interactions can stimulate the brain and improve cognition. Connect with friends on a weekly basis or engage in local activities for seniors.
Daily exercise - Exercise has been linked to increased mental function and cognitive flexibility. Try to incorporate at least 30 minutes of physical activity into your daily routine.
Well-balanced diet - A diet rich in antioxidants may improve brain performance and reduce the risk of cognitive decline. Fill your meals with green leafy vegetables, berries, nuts, fatty fish, extra-virgin olive oil, and dark chocolate (for dessert only, of course).
Stress management - Learn how to manage your stress effectively. People with elevated or chronic stress levels are at an increased risk of experiencing a decline in cognitive function.
Substance abuse - Excessive smoking and alcohol use have been shown to accelerate cognitive decline. Seek professional help if you can’t cut back or quit on your own.
Of course, medications and other types of treatments may be utilized as well. Non-prescription and prescription nootropics, or smart drugs, are medications that can counteract the symptoms of cognitive decline. These have shown promising results across the board, but be sure to consult with your healthcare provider before adding any new medication to your daily routine.
Another treatment you may want to discuss with your doctor is a bit novel, but hypnosis may be a player in the brain game. Some studies have shown that hypnosis can improve memory recall, as well as slow the progression of dementia.
The key idea here is to embark on a journey that prioritizes healthy lifestyle choices, such as exercise, diet, sleep, proper health care, and social connections. Not only will a journey of this nature improve your overall physical health, it may positively impact your overall brain health as well.
Growing Old and Remembering What’s Important
Remember, a bad bottle of wine or misshapen shoes are akin to a brain suffering decline due to improper care and lack of use. The good news is that simple lifestyle changes and close monitoring from your doctor can preserve and even strengthen your mind no matter where you fall in the aging process.
Don’t wait until it’s too late before you start prioritizing the health of your brain. With a proactive approach that includes healthy lifestyle factors and proper medical treatments, maintaining your overall well-being and reducing the risk of cognitive decline is easier than you may think.
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