What is cognitive decline?
Cognitive decline is when your brain doesn’t work as well as it used to. For example, a person who is experiencing cognitive decline may have trouble learning, using language or remembering things.
Some cognitive decline is a normal part of growing older. Cognitive decline that happens quickly or that affects day-to-day activities is called dementia. Dementia may be a symptom of a more serious condition, such as stroke, Alzheimer’s disease or head injury.
Can I prevent cognitive decline?
As your body ages, so does your brain. Some cognitive decline is a normal part of growing older. You can’t stop or prevent it, just as you can’t prevent other signs of normal aging. However, you can maintain your health and prevent disease by making healthy choices about your lifestyle, diet and exercise.
Is there such a thing as a “brain-healthy” diet?
Yes and no. Although no one specific diet is best for brain health, eating a healthy diet is important for your overall health. Choosing foods that nourish your body and brain can help prevent or delay diseases, including those that cause dementia.
Tips to nourish your body and brain
- Manage your weight. Studies show that obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol all can increase your risk for dementia. To lose weight and keep it off, try to avoid short-term or “fad” diets. Instead, adopt a healthy way of thinking about and eating food. Find and follow a few food “rules” that work for you. The Mediterranean diet may be a good place to start.
- Eat fruits, veggies and whole grains. You’ve heard it before – a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains can reduce your risk for chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer. It’s probably no surprise that those same foods may also help protect brain function. The antioxidants in leafy greens, cruciferous (such as broccoli, cabbage and turnips) and dark-skinned vegetables may be especially protective. Give beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, eggplant, kale, red bell peppers, romaine lettuce or spinach a try.
- Avoid saturated fats. Foods high in saturated fats and cholesterol, such as red meat and whole-milk dairy products, can contribute to high blood cholesterol levels. Over time, high cholesterol can increase your risk for heart attack and stroke. To limit your intake of saturated fats, use olive oil or canola oil instead of butter when sautéing foods (or grill or roast your foods instead). When you eat meat, choose poultry or fish. Also, choose low-fat or nonfat dairy products over whole-milk products.
- Get your omega-3s. The most common source of omega-3 fatty acids is fatty fish, such as sardines, tuna, salmon, mackerel and herring. To get your omega-3s, try to eat one of these fish once or twice a week.
- Talk to your doctor about taking supplements. Research shows that some vitamins, such as vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin B12 and folate may help protect your brain. In addition to a healthy diet, taking a multivitamin may help ensure you get enough of these nutrients. If you don’t eat fish and are worried about getting enough omega-3 fatty acids, you may want to think about taking a fish oil supplement.
What else can I do to maintain my brain health?
You can stay active – physically, socially and mentally. Physical activity helps prevent disease and maintain blood flow to the brain. If you don’t already exercise, try to work up to 30 minutes of moderate activity 5 times a week. Moderate activities include anything that gets your heart rate up. Walking, hiking, bicycling and swimming are all good options. Choose something you’ll like.
Social interaction helps stimulate your mind. Social activities are any activity you do with other people. It can be as simple as having lunch with a friend or walking around the block with a neighbor. Volunteer opportunities in your community or church are good ways to get involved. Or try to find a club or social group that focuses on an activity you enjoy, such as a sport, craft or hobby.
Finally, to keep your brain cells strong and active, it’s important for you to stay mentally active. Challenge yourself to learn something new. Read newspapers, books and magazines. Enroll in a class at the local community college or adult education center. Or, challenge yourself in a different way by playing games, completing puzzles or trying memory exercises.
This content was developed with general underwriting support from Nature Made®.
See a list of resources used in the development of this information.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff