Cognitive Aging Explained

As we age, our brains age too. Cognitive aging is a natural process that can have both positive and negative effects and these effects vary widely from person to person. Our brains age at different rates and in different ways.

Older woman teaching her granddaughter chess

It’s important to keep in mind that cognitive aging is not a disease. The brain changes associated with aging are part of a natural process that starts at birth and continues throughout the lifespan. While things like our wisdom, expertise and vocabulary increase with age, other abilities like processing speed, decision-making and some types of memory may decline with age.

While 87 percent of people age 65 and older may experience cognitive changes due to the normal aging process to varying degrees, there is growing hope and expectation that it’s possible to maintain cognitive health later in life, allowing people to age independently and enjoy the benefits of a fuller life.

Cognitive aging cannot be prevented, but brain and cognitive health can be optimized.

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Cognitive Aging Explained

The way your brain changes with age is part of a natural process that starts at birth and continues throughout the lifespan. While you can't prevent your brain from aging, there are steps you can take to optimize your brain and cognitive health.
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Tips for Maintaining Cognitive Health

Take care of your physical health

  • Get health screenings as recommended for your age.
  • Manage any chronic health problems, like diabetes, high blood pressure, depression and high cholesterol.
  • Talk with your healthcare provider about the medicines you take and their possible side effects on memory, sleep and brain function.
  • If you smoke, quit smoking and avoid other nicotine products.
  • Get enough sleep – aim for 7-8 hours every night.

Manage high blood pressure

Preventing or controlling high blood pressure may help your brain in addition to helping your heart. Observational studies have shown having high blood pressure in midlife – from your 40’s to early 60’s – increases the risk of cognitive decline later in life.

Eat healthy foods

Adopting a healthy, balanced diet consisting of fruits and vegetables; whole grains; lean meats, fish and poultry; and low-fat or nonfat dairy products can reduce the risk of many chronic diseases and may help keep your brain healthy as well.

  • Control your portion sizes
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water
  • Limit the amount of solid fats, sugar and salt in your diet
  • Limit the use of alcohol

Be physically active

Ongoing physical activity has been linked to benefits for the brain and cognition. Aerobic exercise, like brisk walking, is thought to be more beneficial for cognitive health than non-aerobic exercises, like stretching and toning. Aim to get about 30 minutes of physical activity every day.

Keep your mind active

Staying intellectually engaged may benefit the brain. Engaging in personally meaningful activities, like volunteering or hobbies, or learning new skills, like photography or a new language, may help you feel happier and healthier as well as helping your thinking ability. There are a lot of different activities you can do to keep your mind active:

  • Read books and/or magazines
  • Play games
  • Learn a new skill or hobby
  • Volunteer in your community

Manage stress

Stress is a natural part of life, but over time, chronic stress can negatively impact the brain, affect memory, and increase the risk for Alzheimer’s and related dementia. The following practices can help you build the ability to bounce back from stressful situations:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Write in a journal
  • Practice relaxation techniques

Stay connected

Connecting with people through social activities and community programs can keep your brain active and keep you engaged with the world around you. Participating in social activities may also lower the risk for some health problems and improve well-being. Studies show that social activities may also improve cognitive function.
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