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Age-related Cognitive Decline: Health Habits to Prevent It

Updated on August 14, 2017

Human brain shows specific changes with age. Its volume and/ or weight decline with age at a rate of around 5% per decade after age 40. The actual rate of decline possibly increases with age particularly over age 70. It has been suggested by experts that a decline in neuronal volume rather than number contributes to the changes in an ageing brain. The changes may be related to sex with different areas most affected in men and women. Brain changes do not occur to the same extent in all brain regions.

Collectively, these changes give rise to a variety of symptoms associated with aging, such as forgetfulness, decreased ability to maintain focus, and decreased problem solving capability. If left unchecked, symptoms oftentimes progress into more serious conditions, such as dementia or even Alzheimer’s disease.

The brain changes that may affect cognition and behavior occur at the levels of molecular ageing, intercellular and intracellular ageing, and tissue ageing.

Cognitive Decline –

Cognitive ageing is complex. As dementia and mild cognitive impairment are both common, they can affect an older adult’s day to day function. Even those who do not experience these conditions may experience subtle cognitive changes associated with aging.

There is little age-related decline in some mental functions such as vocabulary, some numerical skills, and general knowledge, but other mental capabilities decline from middle age onwards, or even earlier. The latter include aspects of memory, executive functions, processing speed, reasoning and multitasking. All of these mental functions are critical for carrying out everyday activities, living independently, and for general health and wellbeing.

The ability to schedule and undertake multiple everyday activities appears to be sensitive to ageing and particularly striking impairments in dual-tasking or multitasking appear to signal the onset of dementia.

The most widely seen cognitive change with ageing is memory. Memory can be broadly divided into four sections - episodic memory, semantic memory, procedural memory and working memory.

The first two of these are most important with regard to ageing. Episodic memory is defined as a form of memory, in which information is stored about where, when and how the events or things take place, for example, memory of the first day at school. Episodic memory performance is thought to decline from middle age onwards. This is particularly true for recall in normal ageing and less so for recognition. It is a characteristic of the memory loss seen in Alzheimer's disease (AD).

Semantic memory is defined as memory for meanings, for example, knowledge that Paris is the capital of France. Semantic memory increases gradually from middle age to the young elderly but then declines in the very elderly.

Causes of Cognitive Decline –

Common causes of age-related cognitive decline are as follows:

  • Oxidative stress and free radical damage
  • Chronic low-level inflammation
  • Declining hormone levels like estrogen, testosterone, DHEA and pregnenolone
  • Endothelium dysfunction
  • Diminished blood flow in small vessels of brain leading to undetected mini-strokes
  • Chronic stress
  • Insulin resistance
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Excess body weight
  • Sub-optimal nutrition
  • Chronic exposure to particulate air pollution
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Loneliness, lack of social network and

Habits That Prevent Cognitive Decline –

Have good sleeps at night - Lack of sleep may be a cause of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. It is best to have regular sleeping hours. Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and overuse of electronics in the evening. If one has trouble with sleep, one should start a soothing bedtime ritual.

Manage of high blood pressure – The experts suggest that increased day-to-day blood pressure variability, independent of average blood pressure, is a significant risk factor for the development of cognitive impairment leading to dementia in the general elderly population. Therefore, this seems justified to safeguard vascular health and, as a consequence, brain health.

Cultivate friendship - Humans are wired for social contact, connoting a connection in a real sense. People, who have even just a few close friends, are happier and more productive. They’re also less likely to suffer from cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s.

Avoid junk food - Parts of the brain linked to learning, memory, and mental health are smaller in people who eat too much junk food and take frequent soft drinks. Conversely, berries, whole grains, nuts, and green leafy vegetables preserve brain function and slow mental decline.

Exercise regularly - If you don’t exercise regularly, you’re also more likely to get diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure, all of which may be linked to cognitive decline. One doesn’t have to start running marathons. A half-hour brisk walk in the garden or around the neighborhood will work. The important thing is to do it at least 3 days a week. In reality, regular exercise benefits all aspects of the mind including memory, cognition, learning, and reading. Moreover, it even increases the size of our brain.

Stop smoking - Smoking can shrink the brain, making your memory worse and predisposing you twice as likely to get dementia, including Alzheimer’s.

Avoid overeating - If a person is eating too much food, even the right kind of food, one may not be able to build the strong network of neural connections in brain that help one think and remember. So, overeating for too long can make one get dangerously overweight, which is linked to cognitive problems and Alzheimer’s.

Avoid noise stressors - Human cognitive performance encompasses many domains, such as attention, short- and long-term memory, decision-making, and executive control processes. The same domains may be affected to a varying degree by different types of noise stressors. In addition, the same type of noise stressor may impair one cognitive domain, while having no effect on another.

Challenge the brain – Many feel that the right puzzle, game, or app could reduce their risk of cognitive decline. But helping to keep brain healthy goes beyond any single tool. Challenge yourself to think in new ways by completing a new jigsaw puzzle, doing something artistic or playing games such as bridge.

Practice yoga and meditation – Recently researchers have found that, compared with other healthy, active women of their age, women yoga practitioners typically have greater cortical thickness in the brain's left prefrontal cortex. This points out that yoga practice has neuroplastic effects on the brain, which may translate into better mood and cognition.

Minimize exposure to air pollution – Though air pollution is an unavoidable part of life of people living in urban and industrialized areas, individuals, especially older people, can take appropriate steps to minimize their exposure to it.

The Bottom Line –

Because of the successes of improved health care over the last century, many are now living longer and healthier lives. As a result, the world population has a greater proportion of older people. Cognitive decline mainly affects older people, although there is a growing awareness of cases that start much earlier.

According to the projections of the World Health Organization (WHO), by 2050 the number of individuals older than 60 years will be approximately 2 billion and will account for 22% of the world’s population. So, one can clearly visualize the immensity of problem of cognitive impairment in future, causing great economic burden on the individuals as well as respective governments of different countries.

Human brain has a remarkable quality of neuro-plastcity, which makes it a versatile organ. So, people can make good use of this quality to reduce age-related cognitive decline by adopting appropriate measures for brain health.

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    • Dr Pran Rangan profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Pran Rangan 

      14 months ago from Kanpur (UP), India

      Thanks Nadine for your nice comments.

      There are studies that regular practice of Yoga is good for mental and physical health.

      Creative activities are one of the ways of keeping age-related mental decline at bay. So, continue writing.

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 

      14 months ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      So very true, getting old is not for sissies. I sincerely hope that I will be able to keep writing well into the nineties, so I will practicing my Yoga daily, keep being creative and now close up for the day to get my 8-hour sleep. Thanks for a well-informed article about how to look after ourselves.

    • Dr Pran Rangan profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Pran Rangan 

      15 months ago from Kanpur (UP), India

      Thanks Denise for your comments.

      Cognitive decline is a big problem with older people. As their population is increasing, the problem is going to be bigger and bigger.

      I can empathize with you regarding the condition of your father.

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 

      15 months ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      I recently visited my father, who is currently 85 years old and in an assisted living facility. His memory has declined dramatically in the last few years, to the point that he does not remember the past. I found that I could no longer reminisce with him, and I found this disconcerting. We could only talk about present events, as any reminders of the past left him feeling bad that he could not remember. It was hard!

    • Dr Pran Rangan profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr Pran Rangan 

      15 months ago from Kanpur (UP), India

      Thanks for your comments , Dana.

      We have to do this in order to stay healthy and age gracefully. I am also doing the same. I too am a candidate.

    • Dana Tate profile image

      Dana Tate 

      15 months ago from LOS ANGELES

      Getting old really sucks! Avoiding junk food, caffeine, and sleeping more at night, well, I'm a prime candidate.

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