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Ways to Avoid Cognitive Decline as We Age


Aging is inevitable. It is coming for all of us as it has for every person in the history of mankind. I don’t mean to sound foreboding because it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Later in life we have a greater wealth and understanding of the things that are important: more free time to travel, spend with family, dedicate to projects that matter to us, and let’s not forget the discounts! But some of the process of aging can be a bit rocky as we learn to cope with a degree of physical and mental decline. The number of Americans over the age of 65 is projected to more than double in the next forty years, from 40 million is 2010 to 88 million by 2050, so it is as important as ever to understand what you can do to naturally mitigate and even avoid the effects of again, especially cognitive decline.

Certain cognitive functions such as memory, executive decision making, processing speed and conceptual reasoning are seen as a normal part of cognitive decline as we age. In more severe cases senior citizens can suffer from different forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease. These declines aren’t just conceptual, but also manifest themselves in physical ways. In one analysis from the Clinics of Geriatric Medicine, people over 70 saw a decrease in brain white matter by 16-20% compared to younger study participants, and gray matter decreased by less than 6%. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4015335/) They also saw a deterioration in the function of the white matter.

That may sound scary, but the good news is that there are plenty of things that you can do, and even things you can stop doing, that will help you stay sharp. Let’s start with the easy part, things that you can avoid!

Studies show that those who continually learn and challenge their brains experience less cognitive decline. Now, if we’re honest, most senior citizens aren’t exactly known for trying new things. Most would agree that grandma and grandpa fall into a comfortable routine for the last 20 years of their lives and live that out until the end. But being comfortable and having that day in and day out routine is actually doing your brain a big disservice. You have to exercise it to keep it sharp. We’ll get more into that a little later.

According to the American Council on Science and Health 43.3 million people take cholesterol lowering statin medications in the U.S. and as many of you know, statins have a nasty reputation for side effects, including impaired cognitive function. When you look at it, it makes sense. Statins are a drug made to lower your body’s cholesterol levels. The brain is where 25% of the cholesterol in your body is found and used. If you take statins to lower cholesterol, you are impairing your brain function.

As a matter of fact a study from the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that in the elderly, those with HIGHER cholesterol levels had the best memory function. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18757771) So judging by that alone it would be wise to stay away from statins. “What about my high cholesterol?” you ask…The decades old mistake of linking high cholesterol to heart disease has finally been disproven definitively enough that the USDA removed the daily limits on cholesterol intake from its 2015-2020 dietary recommendations. (The last industrialized nation to do so)

Now as far as natural and healthy things that you can do to avoid cognitive decline as you age, the good news is there is an entire laundry list. Let’s briefly dive in.

Dietary changes, such as adding cholesterol and healthy fats are well established for improved cognition and mood as we just evidenced. One study from the Natural Medicine Journal shows that consumption of diets rich in olive oil and nuts improves cognition and lowers the risk of stroke. (https://www.naturalmedicinejournal.com/journal/2013-11/nuts-and-extra-virgin-olive-oil-improve-cognition-and-lower-risk-stroke) Increasing dietary vitamin B12 from sources like fish, shell fish, organ meats, red meat, eggs, and dairy products is also essential. It is also well established that low levels of B12 lead to decreased cognitive performance and brain shrinkage. Avoiding modern wheat due to its inflammatory properties and effects on cognition and mood is a burgeoning area of interest championed by Dr. David Perlmutter and merits some consideration as well.

Dietary supplements can also play a role and many have been found to be helpful. Perhaps the most well-known of them is Ginko Biloba. A study published in the Journal of Chinese Integrative Medicine showed that Ginko Biloba significantly increased memory in participants with mild cognitive impairment. (http://www.greenmedinfo.com/article/effects-ginkgo-biloba-extract-improving-episodic-memory-patients-mild)

A relatively new kid on the block in the realm of supplements that is showing wonderful results across a range of cognitive concerns is citicoline. A report from the Natural Medicine Journal states that “Studies in animals and humans provide evidence of citicoline’s ability to promote learning and memory and improve cognitive impairment in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, as well as in victims of mild to moderate stroke and cerebral ischemia.” (https://www.naturalmedicinejournal.com/journal/2010-06/citicoline-novel-therapeutic-agent-neuroprotective-neuromodulatory-and) Pretty impressive.

Lifestyle and activity level play very important roles and are perhaps the easiest changes you can make as they don’t require any special shopping or remembering to take pills. Intellectually stimulating activities and new challenges keep your cerebral muscles flexing. Learning new languages, doing puzzles, travel, making new friends, learning any new skill, gardening…these can all help fight cognitive decline. As the old adage goes if you don’t use it, you lose it.

Social engagement, sufficient sleep, exercise, yoga, meditation and breathing exercises are other important activities that you can engage in to keep the noodle from getting too soggy.

In the end, we all want our golden years to be to be the highest quality years of our lives. You have hopefully lived and learned a lot so it is the time to put all of that wonderful knowledge to good use. Eating right, exercising, traveling, spending time with friends and family, learning new things, these will all keep us a little sharper as the years go by and are really the types of things that we should all be shooting to do. What you put in is really what you get out and your brain and body are a reflection of just that.

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