Cognitive Skills: Keeping the Brain Flexible

What is Cognition?

Cognition is the ability to think, reason, remember, analyze, interpret, judge, and problem solve. It involves the higher-level brain functions such as language, perception, imagination, and planning. It is a mental process to gain knowledge and understanding. Cognition and memory are the cornerstone of rational thought and behavior. While everyone forgets things from time to time, as we age, remembering can take longer and sometimes a memory can be lost forever.

Remember when you were young and you thought you would never forget an exciting event—meeting a famous person, accomplishing a goal, winning a contest?  Well, as we age, we often forget many of the details such as dates and who we were with when we experienced it. It can be maddening but it’s a fact of life.

Some people will age with an intact, sharp mind and memory, while others will struggle to remember names, where the car keys are, or why they walked into a particular room. As the saying goes, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” That has double meaning, of course. For instance, if you don’t use an object on a regular basis or do something on a regular basis, then you will likely misplace it or forget how to do something. The same goes for cognition. The more we challenge our brain cells with stimulating activities, the healthier our brain remains and the less decline in cognition over time.

Cognitive Reserve

An important concept in understanding cognitive health is known as the ‘cognitive reserve’. You can think of your cognitive reserve as your brain’s ability to find alternate ways of getting a job done. Think of it as being mentally flexible—when the road you always take to the gym is closed from construction and you need to find a new route. The quickness of your cognitive reserve is developed by a lifetime of education and curiosity to help your brain better cope with any declines or challenges it encounters.

We can also rebuild our reserve using a concept known as neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability or capacity to gain function as the result of the environment, external forces, or new input. As we age, we retain this ability to some degree, which largely depends on lifestyle choices or circumstances. Avoiding traumatic brain injury, excessive alcohol use, and air pollution are three factors that can preserve cognition and lessen one’s risk of dementia.

Research shows that people with greater cognitive reserve are better able to adapt to symptoms of degenerative brain changes caused by dementia, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, or a stroke. A strong cognitive reserve can also help you function better for longer when you are exposed to unexpected life events such as stress, illness, or injuries.

How to Slow Cognitive Decline

Modification of twelve risk factors can alter the rate of cognitive decline. In early years, people with less education are at additional risk of failing cognition as they age. During midlife (years 45-65), controlling high blood pressure, hearing loss, obesity, brain injury (falls), and not drinking more than 21 ounces of alcohol per week can delay cognitive decline. In the later years, smoking, social isolation, depression, diabetes mellitus, sedentary behavior or lack of physical activity, and air pollution should be avoided.

High blood pressure is a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease and strokes. Strokes affect the brain and can destroy essential ‘memory areas.’ Strokes and heart failure can also limit physical abilities such as exercise, which can be protective of memory loss. It’s a domino effect. Chronic diseases like these can lead to depression, further aggravating our thought processes.

Cognitive health is the goal, and it means to develop and preserve cognitive abilities that allows people to have purpose, maintain social ties, function independently, and facilitate recovery from injury or illness. The level of physical activity has been studied with regard to preserving cognition and the findings of 18 types of physical activity are listed.

Mild Activities

  • Light gardening
  • Bowling
  • Light housework
  • Home repairs

Moderate Activities

  • Gardening
  • Electric lawn mowing
  • Cleaning the car
  • Walking at a moderate pace
  • Dancing
  • Floor or stretching exercises
  • Heavy housework

Vigorous Activities

  • Jogging
  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Aerobics or gym
  • Tennis
  • Heavy gardening
  • Manual lawn mowing

Lifestyle Choices

A healthy diet can help heal your brain. Remember the saying, “You are what you eat,” and “Garbage in means garbage out.” The world is full of free radicals that cause oxidation or inflammation. Inflammation is linked to almost every disease, injury, or infection. The best way to avoid inflammation is to eat foods high in antioxidants.

The frequency of eating matters, along with the number of servings per day of fresh fruit, green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, fatty fish, other fish, and whole wheat/brown bread. The “Mediterranean-style” diet is one such diet that is rich in antioxidants.

Light to moderate alcohol intake has been shown to protect cognition but excess and no alcohol did not. Go figure. We’ve heard that before in relation to reduction in heart disease. Excess alcohol is associated with high blood pressure, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

Smoking is bad for every organ—the brain needs oxygen to function.

Mentally stimulating leisure activities like playing cards, reading—even video games— can play a role in exercising the brain. They result in better memory, speed of processing, and executive functioning, and less decline in overall cognition, language, and executive functioning. These activities were also shown to reduce rate of cognitive decline.

Retirement should be pleasant and filled with leisure activities, which are defined as activities that individuals engage in for enjoyment or well-being which are independent of work or activities of daily living.

One meta-analysis showed that six cognitive ‘leisure-like’ activities and ten physical activities were associated with better cognition.

Spotlight: Rita Solomon

Spotlight: Rita Solomon

Colors and Letters Cognitive Challenge

Colors and Letters Cognitive Challenge

‘Leisure-like’ activities and ten physical activities were associated with better cognition:
 
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Crossword puzzles
  • Board or card games
  • Group discussions
  • Playing music
 
 

Physical activities included:

  • Tennis
  • Golf
  • Swimming
  • Bicycling
  • Dancing
  • Group exercises
  • Team games
  • Walking
  • Climbing more than two flights of stairs
  • Babysitting

The consensus of medical professionals is that 30 minutes of physical activity per day lowers your risk of many age-related diseases that can lead to poor cognitive abilities as well as a slew of other conditions. From the ideas above you can see there are no shortage of things you can do to stay active. Find something you love and enjoy the benefits.