According to the National Institute on Aging (NIH), cognitive health involves the ability to clearly think, learn, and remember.1 Most of us know an older adult who has some sort of cognitive decline, possibly from Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia. The idea of losing our memories and ability to navigate life due to cognitive decline is a real fear for many. In addition, retaining cognitive health isn’t just for the aging population to consider. It’s an important pillar of health that you can nurture at any time in your life. Experts may not yet know how to prevent dementia, but here we’ve highlighted five ways to help boost and retain your cognitive abilities in 2020.
1.Eat your veggies
Although there are enormous amounts of conflicting diet advice out there — not all backed by reputable research — most nutritionists agree everyone could eat more vegetables. Veggies provide you with vitamins, minerals, and fiber all in tasty, low-calorie packages. Now research shows eating leafy greens can actually prevent cognitive decline. Research from Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center shows that one daily serving (one-half cup) of cooked leafy greens (like kale, spinach, or chard) could actually slow brain aging by up to 11 years, over time.2 Dining on greens could potentially help preserve memory and thinking skills. Now that’s a good reason to load up on the salad bar! For those who have difficulty finding ways to enjoy greens, you can sneak them into fruit smoothies, soups, and sauces without overpowering flavors.
Much research recently has shown the wide-ranging health benefits of getting a good night’s sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims that insufficient sleep may be linked to a number of chronic diseases.3 The CDC website devotes an entire section to the topic of sleep, with Table #3 showing significant differences in disease rates depending on how much someone sleeps.4 For example, a person who sleeps less than seven hours a night is twice as likely to develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder. A more obvious benefit to most people is that when you get enough sleep, you function better in all parts of life.
Cognitive abilities sharpen with a good night’s sleep for several reasons. According to an article in Brain&Life, adequate sleep helps people consolidate memories and remove brain toxins, including the plaque linked to Alzheimer’s disease.5 Evidently, it’s worth the time and energy to learn the best ways to get 7 or more hours of sleep.
Good sleep hygiene takes some discipline and perhaps a conversation with your family doctor about potential issues like sleep apnea, movement disorders, or REM sleep disorder.6 In addition to avoiding too much caffeine and alcohol, getting 30 minutes of exercise early in the day can result in a better night’s sleep.
This leads us to the topic of physical exercise. Physical fitness has too many benefits to dive into here, including overall mental health, blood pressure regulation, cardiac health, weight loss assistance, weight maintenance, balance, stamina, etc. One of the most recent and exciting breakthroughs regarding exercise illustrates that short bursts of intense exercise actually give the human brain a cognitive boost. According to research at Canada’s Western University, just 10 minutes of aerobic activity temporarily improves problem-solving abilities and improves mental focus.7 With that news, you should do a set of jumping jacks before you need a brain boost — before a big business presentation or a final exam.
If you don’t have a solid exercise regimen yet, maybe 2020 is the year to start. As always, check with your doctor before starting a new exercise plan and start slowly. If you already exercise regularly, consider adding high intensity interval training (HIIT) at least once a week. These workouts include short bursts of high-intensity sprinting, followed by a few minutes of recovery, repeated several times. People who do this type of training, show improvements in math and reading working memory, according to the Journal of Exercise Physiology Online.8
4.Save money for emergencies and retirement
Next to exercise, another common resolution is saving money — for retirement, the kids’ college funds, emergencies, or for that once-in-a-lifetime African safari. Saving for these known and unforeseeable events can give you peace of mind, which may eliminate stress and frees your energy for both work and play. Once you’ve accumulated enough for emergencies, you have the luxury of thinking about that vacation. Don’t put it off just because the known events seem far away. No one can predict job loss, illness, earthquakes, or the refrigerator calling it quits. With money saved and a plan in place, you improve your odds of successfully navigating unforeseeable setback.
5.Engage in meaningful activities
Continue doing activities you love and that connect you to others. And this year, try something new to help create new ways of thinking. If you love botany, take a gardening class or join a community garden. Sign up for a new type of workout regimen. Volunteer for an organization that’s important to you. A review of 15 articles in the Journals of Gerontology shows when adults over 55 volunteer in the community, they defy cognitive aging.9 Staying active, connecting with other people, and giving back to the world can keep your brain active and help you feel more engaged. Participating in meaningful, social activities can also bring you happiness and improve your overall well-being.
Things to Consider:
- Connect with a long-lost friend or relative to help retrieve deeply stored memories and engage a new part of your brain
- Save money for known and unknown events to help provide peace of mind
- Make a list of new activities to try in 2020
1 ”Cognitive Health and Older Adults,” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, May 2017
2 ”Cognitive Decline May Be Slowed By Leafy Greens,” New Atlas, December 2017
3 ”Sleep and Chronic Disease,” Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, August 2018
4 ”Sleep and Sleep Disorders,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 2017
5 ”The Promise of Sleep,” BrainandLife.org, March 2017
6 ”Tips for Better Sleep,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 2016
7 ”Even a Little Exercise Boosts Your Brain,” New Atlas, December 2017
8 ”Journal of Exercise Physiology Online,” American Society of Exercise Physiologists, October 2017
9 ”Volunteering in the Community: Potential Benefits for Cognitive Aging," H. Guiney and L. Machado, March 2018