Everyone wants to stay sharp as they age, yet many expect that mental dullness will ensue over the course of time. Cognitive decline is not inevitable, however, and the expectation that we all go “senile” stems in part from ageist mindsets.
Pause to consider if cognitive losses are, to some extent, self-fulfilling prophecies.
Simple forgetfulness, common at all ages, becomes evidence of “old timers’ disease.” Inattention behind the wheel becomes confirmation that one is too old to drive. And repeating a story becomes proof that one has gone “senile.”
Typical aging does not involve dementia nor major neurocognitive disorders. These conditions are not — I repeat, not — the norm. Minor declines in memory and speed of processing, which can be associated with aging, generally do not interfere with day-to-day life.
Mild cognitive impairment, which is viewed as that gray area between “normal cognition” and dementia, does occur in 6-7 percent of those over 65, but the good news is that the condition can revert back to normal cognition, though not for everyone. Only about 5 percent of older adults are in nursing homes, while the vast majority live in the community where most want to stay.
The time to work on aging well is now.
No matter the current level of cognitive functioning, you can take steps to stave off more serious mental decline or preserve function. There is no magic pill or medication that has been shown to be effective for this purpose, but there are several modifiable factors you can address.
Studies have shown the risk factors for poor cognition in old age are genetics, sedentary lifestyles, diabetes and other neurocognitive diseases, low educational attainment, sensory losses, smoking, and obesity.
We certainly cannot go back and trade in our parents and ancestors, but nearly every other risk factor listed can be altered by changing our behavior (often easier said than done).
One way to conceptualize sharpening one’s cognitive skills is through the mnemonic PACES. By running through the PACES, one cannot guarantee healthy cognition throughout life, but one can feel confident that he or she is doing the best possible job to promote brain health.
P is for physical exercise, which has been shown to help generate new brain cells. The Mayo clinic lists several advantages of exercise, including better mood, improved sex, better health (disease control), better sleep, weight control, and more energy.
A stands for activity. Get up and do something. Even better, do something for someone else. Stephen Post, in an article titled “It’s good to be good,” writes about how altruism contributes to well-being and overall health. Don’t just sit there watching life pass you by; make a decision to do something.
The C is for cognitive tasks. Often people are proud of regularly doing crossword puzzles or playing bridge, and indeed these are excellent activities that can keep one’s mind sharp. However, Paul Nussbaum, who writes about aging and brain wellness, states that the most important aspect of cognitive activity is engaging in novel tasks or learning new things. So if crossword puzzles are getting easy for you, move on to something more challenging. Learn a new language or a new physical skill. Always have a bucket list of new ventures to try when current ones have been mastered. The brain needs stimulation.
E stands for engagement. In occupational therapy, we believe in “living life to its fullest.” Engaging in roles and occupations that feed our souls certainly also nourishes our neurons and their connections. Another important E is emotional health, such as not accepting that depression is a normal aspect of aging.
Finally, the S is for two aspects of healthy cognitive aging. First, socialization with others promotes health on many levels, whereas isolation causes depression and brain cell loss. Social activities are fun and promote bonding with others in meaningful ways.
Lastly, the S also stands for sleep, which is often overlooked as a crucial component of brain health and function. Not only is it important to get the optimal amount of sleep that you require as an individual, but what is perhaps even more important is sleep continuity, or more set patterns of sleep. Changes in sleep routine are obviously disruptive to mood and daily life, and these may be detrimental to brain health as well.
In summary, although we cannot see them, our 86-100 billion brain cells need tending throughout life. Regularly run through the PACES to keep your thinking power sharp and agile.
Get up. Go out. Expend energy to gain momentum. Do something for someone else. Learn something new. Stay positive. Enjoy today. Live the life you want. And remember, it is never too late (or too early) to start aging well.
Regi Robnett is a professor in the department of occupational therapy at the University of New England. She will be giving a presentation entitled “Staying sharp: the cutting edge of research” at the Maine Geriatrics Conference, to be held at Harborside Hotel in Bar Harbor June 11-12.