Your cognitive health is determined by how well your brain can perform mental processes. These include remembering things, learning things, and using language. A healthy brain is just as important as a healthy body. Many of the things you do to keep your body healthy can also keep your brain healthy. It is also important to stay socially and mentally active.
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.
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 do things to reduce your risk of decline. 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.
Path to improved health
There isn’t one specific diet that is best for brain health, but eating healthy 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. There are many things you can do 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.
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 (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 and store-bought baked goods. Read food labels carefully to check for trans fats. They will appear in the ingredient list as “hydrogenated vegetable oil” 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 do 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 food instead of frying it.
Get your omega-3 fatty acids. The most common source of omega-3 fatty acids is fatty fish (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. Your doctor might suggest a dietary supplement based on your overall health and the vitamins or minerals your diet lacks. 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.
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 into your schedule 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.
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.
Things to consider
It is normal for your memory to lag as you get older. Forgetting where you put your keys, for example, is not a sign of Alzheimer’s disease. Being unable to retrace your steps to find the keys could be a sign. Other signs include losing track of the date or the season, or difficulty completing familiar tasks.
There is currently no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers are working to find a way to delay or prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Until then, taking care of your body and brain are the best ways to prolong cognitive health.
Questions for your doctor
- What could be causing my memory loss?
- Is it possible that my medications could be making my memory worse?
- Are there any medications that can help with memory loss?
- Is it safe for someone with cognitive decline to drive?
- My parent could have dementia. How can I talk to them about it?
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Healthy Aging
National Institute on Aging: Assessing Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.