Cognitive Aging Is Not Dementia – Tips for Keeping Senior Brains Sharp

We all want our minds to stay sharp as we age, including our senior loved ones.

AARP, in a 2012 survey, found that 87% feel that keeping their minds sharp was a primary concern.

We hear about what to do, what to eat, and how to change our lifestyle to increase the likelihood that our brains will be sharp as the years go by.

Almost all of us have had our lives touched by Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia and know too well how memory loss can impact our lives.

We all are forgetful at times but does that mean we are losing our cognition or brain function?

Cognition is a term that encompasses many functions of our mind, including memory, decision making abilities, problem solving, understanding, learning and attention. How intact our cognition remains as we age is important to our senior’s independence and quality of life since it affects the ability to complete our daily tasks essential to living.

Does losing some cognition as we age mean we have dementia or is it a natural part of aging?

Cognitive Aging

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has been studying our aging brains to determine what effects getting older has on our brain function. What is normal and what is cause for concern?

Cognitive aging is a lifelong process not something that happens in one year or after a particular event or trauma. It is not a disease but a part of life!

The IOM defines cognitive aging as an ongoing process of change that is highly variable and occurs as we age. Some people maintain their cognitive health more than others.

Cognitive aging involves changes in the structure of the brain although we don’t know exactly what changes are occurring. Investigation continues into the biological reasons that function declines.

Influencers of Cognitive Aging

Over our lifetimes there are many factors that affect our health including our brain health. Some of the changes are in our control and others are out of our control.

  1. Genetics
  2. Education
  3. Physical activity
  4. Medical condition – chronic diseases, hospitalizations
  5. Diet
  6. Development beginning in utero and throughout our childhood
  7. Environment – air pollution and exposures
  8. Socioeconomic status
  9. Attitude
  10. Emotional factors
  11. Life experiences – smoking, alcohol, substance abuse
  12. Stress
  13. Social isolation
  14. Medications – prescription and over the counter

Because cognitive aging occurs throughout the lifespan, it is important for all of us starting at a young age remaining through our elder years to take actions to lessen the effect of those factors that are in our control.

Actionable Recommendations to Improve Cognitive Aging

Keeping our brains healthy requires the same attention as keeping our bodies healthy does. Many of the lifestyle changes we are encouraged to espouse will help our brains age more successfully.

Here are some things we can all do no matter our ages to keep our brains sharp, this includes both seniors and family caregivers:

  • Get physically active. It seems like every expert tells us to get moving — for good reason. Physical activity keeps our muscles strong, benefits our heart strength, gives us a positive attitude, supports weight maintenance, and helps manage our blood pressure and blood sugar.
  • Follow a heart healthy lifestyle by eating a healthy diet and controlling blood pressure. Know your numbers for blood pressure as well as good and bad cholesterol so you know what to focus on improving.
  • Stop smoking
  • Review your medication list with your physician to be sure you are not taking medications that could be harming your cognition.
  • Socialize. Find opportunities to socialize with family, friends and your community. Maintain your friendships in person, by telephone or via the internet taking advantage of technology. Attend events in your community to meet new people. Continue to interact with faith based organization, volunteer opportunities and clubs. Don’t isolate yourself.
  • Keep your mind engaged with brain games, learning a new skill or cognitive training exercises.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. Identify obstacles that could be causing sleep deprivation such as medications, noise, old mattress or pillows, room temperature, caffeine intake, needing to go to the bathroom, or sleeping during the day.
  • Review any over the counter medications or supplements with your doctor to be sure there are no interactions that could be affecting cognition or sleep.

What Family Caregivers Can Do

When our senior loved ones lose cognition it doesn’t just affect them but the family caregivers as well.

Because a loss of cognition as a result of aging unrelated to a diagnosis of dementia will mean that your senior loved one will require more help with everyday tasks such as dressing, grooming and even walking safely, more will fall on your shoulders.

If you can encourage your senior loved one to make the necessary lifestyle changes that could delay cognitive loss from aging, you can help them maintain their ability to remain independent and mobile as they age.

Family caregivers should also be on the lookout for potential loss of cognition that could result in unsafe conditions including driving skills and ability to manage their finances.

When cognitive aging proceeds, senior loved ones are at risk for fraud and becoming victims of scams. Protecting them and their financial assets could be very important if their brain health deteriorates.

Helping seniors access the ability to connect with the community, stay engaged, get physical and maintain their health so that they can age successfully keeping their minds sharp will also help you keep your own mind sharp – win, win!