Cognitive health and older adults

”I know that I put my memory pills somewhere, if I could only remember where?”

by the National Institute on Aging

Cognitive health—the ability to clearly think, learn, and remember—is an important component of brain health.

Motor function—how well you make and control movements

Emotional function—how well you interpret and respond to emotions

Sensory function—how well you feel and respond to sensations of touch, including pressure, pain, and temperature

Manage chronic health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and high cholesterol.

Consult with your healthcare provider about the medicines you take and possible side effects on memory, sleep, and brain function.

Reduce risk for brain injuries due to falls and other accidents.

Limit use of alcohol (some medicines can be dangerous when mixed with alcohol).

Quit smoking, if you smoke.

Get enough sleep, generally 7-8 hours each night.

Eat Healthy Foods

A healthy diet can help reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes. It may also help keep your brain healthy.

In general, a healthy diet consists of fruits and vegetables; whole grains; lean meats, fish, and poultry; and low-fat or non-fat dairy products. You should also limit solid fats, sugar, and salt. Be sure to control portion sizes and drink enough water and other fluids.

Be Physically Active

Being physically active—through regular exercise, household chores, or other activities—has many benefits. It can help you:

Studies link ongoing physical activity with benefits for the brain, too. In one study, exercise stimulated the human brain’s ability to maintain old network connections and make new ones that are vital to cognitive health. Other studies have shown that exercise increased the size of a brain structure important to memory and learning, improving spatial memory.

Federal guidelines recommend that all adults get at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week. Aim to move about 30 minutes on most days. Walking is a good start.

For more information, see Go4Life®, NIA’s exercise and physical activity campaign for older adults.

Being intellectually engaged may benefit the brain. People who engage in meaningful activities, like volunteering or hobbies, say they feel happier and healthier. Learning new skills may improve your thinking ability, too.

Lots of activities can keep your mind active. For example, read books and magazines. Play games. Take or teach a class. Learn a new skill or hobby. Work or volunteer. These types of mentally stimulating activities have not been proven to prevent serious cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease, but they can be fun!

Scientists think that such activities may protect the brain by establishing “cognitive reserve.” They may help the brain become more adaptable in some mental functions, so it can compensate for age–related brain changes and health conditions that affect the brain.

Be wary of claims that playing certain computer and online games can improve your memory and other types of thinking. Evidence to back up such claims is evolving. NIA and others are supporting research to determine if different types of cognitive training have lasting effects.

Connecting with other people through social activities and community programs can keep your brain active and help you feel less isolated and more engaged with the world around you. Participating in social activities may lower the risk for some health problems and improve well-being.

So, visit with family and friends. Join programs through your Area Agency on Aging, senior center, or other community organizations.

We don’t know for sure yet if any of these actions can prevent or delay Alzheimer’s disease and age–related cognitive decline. But some of them have been associated with reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia.

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