Maintaining cognitive health

Care and maintenance of your aging brain

By Haley Trontel, PhD, ABPP-CN, neuropsychology

Senior man reading a book outside on a bench

Your cognitive health is your ability to think, learn, remember and communicate clearly, all of which are essential to a long, happy and independent life. While cognitive decline may not be a top-of-mind concern when you’re young, your health habits early in life will have an impact on your brain health later.

It’s never too soon, or too late, to adopt new habits to maximize your brain’s potential (as well as prevent dementia) and improve your longevity. The three most important things you can do are:

Be physically engaged

Getting regular aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, may enhance both the structure and the function of your brain. Studies also find that eating a Mediterranean-style diet centered on vegetables, whole grains and fish may pay off in higher cognitive function and slower decline.

Be socially engaged

Social isolation has been found to have a negative impact on cognition. Stay connected to your family and friends, and cultivate new connections through community groups, classes or volunteering.

Be cognitively engaged

Mentally stimulating activities like crossword puzzles, Sudoku and reading all help the brain remain active and healthy. New research suggests that we may be able to preserve our memory and other high-level cognitive processing by learning a new, unfamiliar skill, such as identifying bird songs, speaking another language or using a photo-editing program. I encourage all my patients to challenge themselves to adopt a new skill that they’ve always wanted to learn.

Many types of cognitive change can be prevented through these and other healthy choices. For example, maintaining healthy blood pressure in midlife — by exercising, avoiding smoking, managing stress, taking medication and treating sleep apnea, if needed — can reduce your risk of cognitive decline later. (See more tips.) Even people at high risk for cognitive decline due to genetic factors may be able to optimize their cognition and prolong their independence by practicing good brain health.

Some cognitive changes, such as slower word finding, are normal as we get older. However, if changes are interfering with your ability to communicate or to take care of daily tasks, it’s important to tell your primary care provider. A neuropsychological evaluation might be recommended to identify whether you might benefit from strategies to help compensate and improve function.

In general, anything that’s good for your physical health is also good for your brain. My goal is to help patients stay independent well into their older age — to 100 and beyond! With healthy lifestyle choices and good compensatory strategies, most people are able to live not only longer, but better.