I have had more than one conversation recently in which a friend or associate expresses concern about their memory. Let’s face it, when you find yourself mentally searching for the right word, or trying to recall who you were about to email, or the name of that restaurant you enjoyed last week… the question arises. Am I experiencing the early symptoms of dementia?
As we have become all too aware of Alzheimer’s, a number of theories have been floated that suggest how to maintain cognitive ability as we age. Many seniors have turned to crossword puzzles, Sudoku or the booming new industry of brain training games to keep their minds sharp. But recent studies, including one from researchers at Florida State University, show that those strategies may not be the answer.
“Our findings and previous studies confirm there’s very little evidence these types of games can improve your life in a meaningful way,” said Wally Boot, associate professor of psychology and an expert on age-related cognitive decline.
So, just because you can solve puzzles, memorize a series of numbers or complete the New York Times crossword doesn’t mean you’ll remember where you put your Iphone. (If you’re like me, it’s in your left hand – not in the purse you are digging through with your right.)
It was conducted by a team of Florida State University researchers including Wally Boot, , and graduate student Dustin Souders.
What DOES work to improve cognition?
1. Physical Exercise
Neil Charness, professor of psychology at Florida State and a leading authority on aging and cognition notes that aerobic exercise, rather than mental exercise has been found to be beneficial for your brain. Physical exercise can cause structural changes in the brain and boost its function. Aerobic exercise includes walking, swimming, biking – even household chores that involve large muscle groups. Consider some enthusiastic vacuuming or leaf raking.
2. Stay Busy and Engaged
Cognitive neuroscientist, Sara Festini, from the University of Texas at Dallas Center for Vital Longevity, co-authored research that found middle-aged and older Americans who stay busy tested better on multiple cognitive functions including brain processing speeds, reasoning and vocabulary.
Psychologist Brent Small, director of the University of South Florida’s School of Aging Studies, agrees the results are “in line with a large body of research suggesting that older adults who are actively engaged in cognitive stimulating activities are more likely to perform better on standard cognitive tasks.”
3. Keep Learning
A study on the impact of sustained engagement on older adults found that learning new and demanding skills is key to staying sharp as we age. So, try stepping out of your comfort zone and into something different. That might be travel, new experiences, a class – like cooking, dancing, pottery or learning to play an instrument.
4. Be Social
One IS the loneliest number. Professor of Psychology, John Cacioppo, from the University of Chicago, found that significant health consequences of feeling lonely can trigger psychological and cognitive decline. You will sleep better, lower your cortisol (stress hormone), and improve cognitive function by being around others. Find somebody you enjoy and give them a call!
5. Mindful Meditation
Work by Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, found that individuals who meditate have more gray matter in the frontal cortex and that this gray matter is preserved despite aging. 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds. No one can argue that meditation is a powerful stress reducer – which in, turn, creates a healthier internal environment.
Enjoy those brain games and crosswords all you like – but if you want to really up your cognitive game, try these 5 strategies. All are good for you in more ways than one.
Still Worried about Cognitive Function? Take the SAGE Test
The Self-Administered Gerocognitive Examination (SAGE Test), takes less than 15 minutes to complete, and is considered a reliable tool for evaluating cognitive abilities. If you’re concerned about memory loss and cognitive function, go to the website for Memory Disorders Research Center at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center and download the memory test. You can share the completed test with your physician to help spot early symptoms of cognitive issues such as early dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Take the SAGE Test.
This article is for informational purposes only, is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, and is not a substitute for medical advice. The above recommendations are indeed just that. Seek medical advice is you notice a change in your cognitive functions.