In recent years, there has been a growing body of research dedicated to determining ways to improve and maintain cognitive function through the aging process, particularly late in life. It is currently estimated that at least 20% of older adults encounter a deterioration in cognitive skills associated with aging that affects their ability to independently perform daily tasks and activities. Moreover, since the world’s population of individuals age 65 or older is estimated to increase from approximately 12% today to 22% in 2050, there is a mounting need to understand what behaviors and activities promote healthy cognitive function during this stage of life (Londen, Preston, & Lebowitz, 2018). In this article, we will explore various factors that may improve cognition as we age, including physical exercise, cognitive training programs and healthy dietary patterns.
Today, there is a significant amount of research which demonstrates that physical exercise has many pro-cognitive abilities. In addition to reducing the risk of conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, regular aerobic exercise in older adults has also been shown to slow cognitive decline and potentially prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Studies have repeatedly shown that older adults with greater levels of cardiovascular fitness exhibited better performance on tasks related to information processing, attention, working memory, and other cognitive abilities. Moreover, older adults who were in healthier physical condition due to sustained exercise regimens were also less likely to experience gray and white matter shrinkage in various regions of the brain. Existing research has strengthened our understanding of the many cognitive benefits of physical exercise (Londen, Preston, & Lebowitz, 2018).
In recent years, there has been an increase in the promotion and use of cognitive training programs which are designed to potentially stave off cognitive decline throughout the aging process. A key goal of these cognitive training programs is to improve neuroplasticity of the brain in older adults, which in turn reduces or counteracts cognitive decline associated with aging. One of the major studies that evaluated the efficacy of computer-based cognitive training programs was the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) trial, in which 2,800 elderly adults participated in a series of ten brain-training sessions. Study participants were randomly assigned to either a control group or three cognitive-training groups that focused on memory, reasoning, or processing speed. Researchers discovered that immediately after the participants finished their training, they demonstrated improved performance on tasks that were associated with the specific cognitive domain that they tested in. In addition, five years after the ACTIVE trial, the study participants experienced fewer declines in independent living skills. As an example, those who had completed training in processing speed were less likely to have stopped driving five years later (Londen, Preston, & Lebowitz, 2018). Although the results of the ACTIVE trial showed promise for the efficacy of cognitive-training programs, other studies have shown results that are less convincing. Based on the findings of these studies, there has been limited evidence that the benefits obtained from cognitive-training programs can transfer to everyday activities in elderly individuals. While more research is needed to determine the true value of cognitive-training exercises in older adults, this topic has generated much interest in the scientific community (Londen, Preston, & Lebowitz, 2018).
Today there is a strong amount of evidence to support the effectiveness of a healthy diet in promoting and maintaining cognitive function as we age. While diets that are high in saturated fat and simple carbohydrates are known as risk factors for cognitive impairment and neurodegenerative disease, those that are plant-based and include a variety of wholesome and nutritious foods including fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, olive oil and complex carbohydrates are associated with lower rates of cognitive decline in older adulthood. A study of people who followed the Mediterranean diet for five years demonstrated better performance on tests of executive function and memory when compared to a control group. Moreover, research has shown that people who adhere to similar diets such as the MIND and DASH diets may have reduced rates of age-related cognitive decline (Londen, Preston, & Lebowitz, 2018).
Based on the evidence we have available today, it is important to adhere to a healthy physical exercise routine and dietary regimen in order to not only stay sharp as we age, but to reduce our risk factors for various neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Brain training may very well confer advantages to cognitive health in the long-term. Palm Beach Neurology is planning to initiate a formal cognitive training program in the near future.
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Londen, E., Preston, T., & Lebowitz, B. K. (2018). Healthy Cognitive Aging. Practical Neurology,17(9), 49-53.