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. A head injury, a stroke, or disease (for example, Alzheimer's disease) can damage brain cells and lead to dementia.
Can I prevent cognitive decline?
As your body gets older, so does your brain. You can’t stop normal cognitive decline, just as you can’t stop other parts of normal aging. However, you can maintain your body and brain health by making healthy choices about your lifestyle, diet, and exercise. Healthy choices can also help prevent disease.
Is there such a thing as a “brain-healthy” diet?
Although there isn't one specific diet that 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 health problems, including conditions that increase your risks for dementia.
Tips to nourish your body and brain
- Manage your weight. Studies show that obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol can all increase your risk for dementia. To lose weight and keep it off, avoid short-term or “fad” diets. Instead, adopt a healthy way of thinking about and eating food. The Mediterranean diet is a good place to start.
- Eat fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. A diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can reduce your risk for chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. These same foods may also help protect brain function. The antioxidants in leafy greens, dark-skinned vegetables, and cruciferous vegetables (for example, broccoli, cabbage, and turnips) may be especially protective. Vegetables including beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, eggplant, kale, red bell peppers, romaine lettuce, and spinach are good choices.
- Avoid unhealthy fats. Try not to eat any trans fats. These are man-made fats that are bad for you. Trans fats are often used in processed foods adn store-bought baked goods. Read foot labels carefully to check for trans fats. They will appear in the ingredient list as "hydrogenated vegetable old" or "partially hydrogenated vegetable oil."
Foods that are high in saturated fats (for example, red meat) can contribute to high cholesterol levels. Over time, high cholesterol can increase your risk for heart attack and stroke. When you eat red meat, reduce your portion size. Choose poultry and fish more often.
You can also avoid unhealthy fats by using olive oil or canola oil when you are sautéing foods. Bake, broil, or roast your foods intead of frying it.
- Get your omega-3 fatty acids. The most common source of omega-3 fatty acids is fatty fish (for example sardines, tuna, salmon, mackerel, and herring). Try to eat this type of fish once or twice a week.
- Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of taking vitamins or supplements. Depending on your overall health and the vitamins or minerals your diet lacks, your doctor might suggest a dietary supplement. If you are interested in taking another type of supplement, talk to your doctor about why you want to take it and what you hope it will do for you. He or she can help you figure out if a dietary supplement will interact with any medical conditions you have, or any prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medicine you are taking.
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 enjoy doing like.
Any activity you do with other people helps to stimulate your brain. A social activity 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 be social. Another option is finding a club or social group that focuses on a sport, hobby, or topic you enjoy.
To keep your brain cells strong and active, it’s important to stay mentally active. Challenge yourself to learn something new. Read to stay informed and for fun. Enroll in a class at a 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