How to maintain cognitive health as we age

The population in most developed nations, including Canada, is aging with the Baby Boomers. For the first time in 2016 there were more people over age 65 then under age 14 in Canada. There were more older adults than there were children. Not only is our population aging, more people are living well into our retirement. What can we do to maintain our health as we age so we can get the most enjoyment out of our later years?

There are some changes in cognition and brain health that are part of normal, health aging. For instance did you know that our thinking efficiency and response speed reach a peak in our 20s? After that our thinking starts to slow. But not every skill declines as we age. Our vocabulary and our store of knowledge grows throughout our lives. Just because our speed declines, however, does not mean we are worse off.

Timothy Salthouse studied the performance of transcription typists (people who type while someone else talks) in a 1984 study. People in the study ranged in age from 19-72. What they found was that age and typing ability were not related. Although older individuals were slower at making individual key strokes, they were not slower in terms of the number of words they typed. Why? Because older individuals had more experience typing, they were able to compensate for age-related slowing by anticipating the next word in the sentence. They used their experience to help overcome their slower response speed.

Although not all skills decline as we age, we do know that many people experience negative changes in physical, mental, and cognitive health as they age. Statistics Canada estimates that the average Canadian can expect to live the last ten years of their life with some type of disability. How do we avoid this? What can we do to live healthy into our 80s and 90s?

A Swedish study (the Kungsholmen Project) followed 1810 individuals over age 75 for 18 years to see how lifestyle factors impacted longevity and health. They found that people who made healthy lifestyle choices lived longer. For example, people who were of normal weight lived on average one year longer than those who were underweight. Those who never smoked lived one year longer than smokers. Regular participation in leisure activities added a year to life expectancy. Those who had rich social networks (i.e. had regular contact with family and friends) lived 1.5 years longer. Those who participated in regular physical activity lived more than 2 years longer.

What can you do to live a longer, healthier life? Exercise. Exercise is one of the best research-supported activities to promote health aging. Even 30 minutes a day of moderate intensity activity (i.e. activity where you can still carry on a conversation but it is challenging, like a brisk walk) can improve health and brain functioning.

Keep your brain active. Participate in hobbies you enjoy or volunteer. These activities can improve your cognitive skills, but they can also improve mood, sleep, and physical health.

Keep socially active. Spend time with family and friends. This helps reduce stress but also keeps your brain active.

Eat a healthy, balanced diet. The Mediterranean diet which is high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, and olive oil is associated with brain health.

These activities don’t have to be expensive. Regular reading is associated with brain health. Many libraries offer free memberships or relatively low-cost memberships.

This sounds like a lot of work to stay healthy right? The good news is, if you can make it to your 90th birthday you can throw all these healthy habits out the window. The 90+ study in California followed 1600 people every six months who were over age 90 years. What they found was that people who drank moderate amounts of alcohol or coffee lived longer than those who abstained. People who were overweight lived longer than normal or underweight people. There was some evidence that high blood pressure in your 90s is protective, and that a higher calorie diet is also protective in the oldest old. So if you can make it to your 90s, enjoy those extra glasses of wine and extra pieces of chocolate cake.