Memory is a funny thing. Some people struggle to recall details of their childhood, but can lock in numbers and facts like a steel trap. Others—like myself—can tell you vivid memories from the age of five, yet forget what they had for breakfast come lunchtime.
Noticing changes in your memory and other cognitive skills in old age, however? Not so funny. In fact, for many seniors, it can be frightening. It is a part of growing older. And while nobody looks forward to it, it is perfectly normal to experience a gradual slipping of cognitive skills as we age. Scientists largely believe this is due to the loss of volume in the brain over time. Blood flow to the brain also decreases, and nerves can become damaged or disconnected, impacting cognitive function.
Significant memory loss and severely impaired cognitive skills, however, may be signs of dementia. If you or a loved one experiences a drastic change in mental ability, it is important to see your doctor.
What is Cognitive Function?
Cognitive function includes more than just memory loss. It is also our emotional function—that is our ability to handle and process complex emotions. Motor skills and sensory function are also cognitive skills. As the brain changes in advanced age, all of these functions can become impaired or more difficult to control.
Here is the good news. While we cannot stop our brains from getting older, there are many things we can do to slow the decline of cognitive function. Thanks to an abundance of research in the past few decades, we now know that taking steps to create new neural pathways may improve memory and other cognitive skills even as we age. In this article, we will take a look at five common ways to help stay mentally fit.
1. Strengthen physical health
Experts agree that cognitive health can be improved by taking steps toward good physical health. Here are just a handful of doctor-recommended health habits which are presumed to help improve brain function:
- Lowering cholesterol & blood pressure
- Exercise (helps improve blood flow to the brain)
- Eating nutrient-rich food
- Avoiding cigarette smoke, excessive alcohol or drug use
- Getting lots of antioxidants
2. Be socially active
When we engage with others, whether one-on-one or in a group setting, our brains become more active. More rapid thinking is required for communicating and responding to others. In a social setting we take our emotions beyond just feeling them—we express them with others around us, allowing us to experience those emotions more deeply than we might in isolation. This is a good exercise in keeping our emotional health strong.
3. Learn new things
Cognitive health thrives when learning new things, especially in a habitual way. Forging new habits and learning new skills helps to create neural pathways, sharpening the brain. People often like to learn how to play an instrument in old age. You can learn anything you want—a new language, a tricky cooking method, calligraphy—you name it. Practice and repetition as well as the excitement of having fun with a new hobby are all great for cognitive function.
4. Read & memorize
Curling up with a good book is not only entertaining, it is exercise for our brains. Even more powerful is the practice of memorization. We create new neural pathways when we attempt to memorize passages from a book, poetry, or even song lyrics. Don’t get discouraged if this is difficult to do. Read often and memorize sections when possible, and you can easily improve cognitive function and boost your memory.
5. Boost dopamine
Recent studies have linked dopamine to cognitive function, concluding that a dopamine deficiency can impact memory, mood, concentration, motor skills and more. What is dopamine? It is a neurotransmitter found naturally in the body which sends signals from the body to the brain. There are many ways to boost dopamine to your brain—many of which are already listed above. Getting good sleep, listening to music, and meditating are great, too. Simply put, engaging in activities that make you feel good generally helps achieve a higher dose of dopamine, thus influencing good cognitive health. Foods rich in Tyrosine, such as bananas, almonds, avocados, and eggs, can boost it as well.
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