It’s likely going to happen – it’s a part of growing old. But there are concrete steps you can take to slow mental decline, stay sharp, improve cognition. Here are 18 proven ways that you can help your brain age gracefully.
(I am not a doctor or professional of any kind, so these posts are not medical advice. I have not included citations as these facts are easily found on legitimate websites ranging from Harvard Medical, NIH, CDC, Psychology Today, etc.)
1) Play Word & Knowledge Games
Diana and I always have a coffee break, and sometimes we play this fun game called Bananagrams, sort of Scrabble without the board or scoring. You must think quickly and keep your gears turning to produce words with the tiles you are dealt. You also can continuously restructure your words, so you are playing mentally in 3D.
When I was recovering from my brain injury in the hospital, we played Scrabble every day. I know it was part of my healing process, as I wiped the mental cobwebs away.
Any game that causes you to think, dig deep in your mind, and be on your toes is great, especially if it involves motor skills, using the whole brain. Your mind is a beautiful thing – use it or lose it!
2) Read a Book. Or Two…
Americans average about 3 hours each day watching TV (not counting screen time from phones & tablets). That same American reads 12 books each year.
With just half of that TV time you could read a book every week!
Reading makes you work a little harder in order to follow the story, to paint the picture in your head, to absorb the events written about. Reading is participatory, requiring you to fully engage. Reading exposes you to new ideas, new words.
I read 62 books last year. Admittedly, many were spy & spec op thrillers, but plenty were non-fiction too. (See list here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/91823992-kenny-fleshman?ref=nav_mybooks&shelf=2022 )
Curling up with a good book can help slow cognitive decline while making you sharper and better informed.
3) A Good Night’s Sleep
Who doesn’t love a good night’s sleep? Sleep is when your body & brain get a chance to reorganize, repair, and maintain. The brain can reconfigure neural pathways while you snooze, leading to better cognitive health.
While I was recovering from EEE, which damaged my brain, my neurologist kept pushing me to get a sleep study. So I did – and she was right.
I had over 33 “events” per hour. That means that at least 33 times every hour I stopped breathing for 10 seconds or more. In the course of a night, that meant my brain was without oxygen for 44 minutes!
Not good. If your brain was without oxygen for 44 minutes at the same time you would be what we call “dead.”
So I went on CPAP therapy and, as the daily app report showed, things got a lot better. Not only more sleep, but better sleep. I now average about 8 hours sleep and under 4 events per hour.
This is such a recognized health problem that insurance is very agreeable to the whole process. Get a sleep study – your brain needs all the O2 it can get.
4) Physical Exercise
I know – that’s always the answer, right?
Well, it is. Physical exercise can slow the loss of white matter in the brain, as well as releasing growth hormones in the brain.
Nothing exxxtreme needed, no boot camp, no mean instructor yelling, just steady exercise. Say, 150 minutes each week walking briskly. That’s only 30 minutes 5 days each week.
You can do that!
This was confirmed today at my neurology appointment. After telling my doc I had been walking steadily all year, she told me about a study she just read confirming that exercise can slow cognitive decline.
Plus, she said she was proud of me, and she knows her brains.
5) Stay Socially Engaged
The pandemic brought to the surface the dangers of isolation. Being alone can cause anxiety, stress, and depression, all contributors to cognitive decline.
Studies point to these benefits of a strong social support network:
• less likely to have cognitive decline
• lower stress levels
• engage attention and memory
• strengthen neural networks
• strengthen cognitive reserve
In other words, to maintain mental health, people need people. Which is why good senior care facilities have so many social opportunities.
Maybe set aside social media and try saying “Let’s do lunch” – it might be just the ticket to slowing cognitive decline.
6) Working Jigsaw Puzzles
Personally, just looking at a puzzle gives me anxiety.
My wife? The opposite – she claims it is calming. So much so that she has “puzzle time” at least once a day. She works 1,000 pieces only, and last year averaged one each week.
And what will all that mental effort do for Diana? A lot.
Working a puzzle:
• engages both sides of the brain
• improves visual-spatial reasoning
• increases short-term memory
• improves problem-solving skills
All of which can combat cognitive decline. It’s even meditative!
While the long-term cognitive benefits haven’t been thoroughly studied, the brain workout is what we are after for cognitive help.
So buy a puzzle, I guess, but I’m afraid I’m going to pass on my own advice this time.
7) Get Your Hearing Tested
What’s that, you say? Exactly.
If you are over 50, have been in the military, worked in industry, or just spent a lot of time rockin’ & rollin’, you likely have hearing loss. Only way to find out for sure is to get tested.
My PCP referred me to a Doctor of Audiology. I was properly and thoroughly tested, and, to no surprise, I had significant hearing loss. The part I had lost the most was in hearing speech correctly (my chart shows it drops off after 1,000hz – that’s speech, and, in music, the midrange).
Which is where the cognitive decline comes in. Not being able to hear well tends to make people less likely to socially engage. Large gatherings, even restaurants, can become bothersome.
Also, when you hear something, your brain breaks the sound wave into many parts that are analyzed by your brain and then reassembled – that is what you hear. It happens thousands of times per second! And that level of brain stimulation plays a role in brain health.
The end result for me was a pair of high-end, Bluetooth controlled hearing aids. You cannot see them unless you look, I can change the settings on the fly for different environments, and I can answer the phone with a tap. Plus, I use them to stream music while I walk.
And I got to tell my grandson that I now hear so well I can hear him thinking 😄!
This is not a cheap solution if done right, but you are worth it.
8) Listen to Music. On Purpose.
In 1972 I bought Steely Dan/Can’t Buy a Thrill. It was a new direction for me at the time, and while it had some big radio hits, what struck me was the dark and sardonic lyrics couple with great musicianship.
I’ve owned many copies over the years, and I’m about to listen to a brand-new remaster on the SACD format. A company is doing all their albums, and I’m excited.
But I shouldn’t say just “listen”, as I have set aside time, am in a great mood, have a nice cab-sauv in my glass, and I will be immersed in the album all the way through.
Music is good for your brain.
Listening to music you love, on purpose, releases dopamine in the brain. The complex mechanisms associated with hearing, interpreting, and enjoying music give your brain a good workout.
Nothing wrong with listening in the background (I do that when I walk) but challenge yourself to sit and listen, attentively and critically, to music. You don’t need to spend crazy money on good gear (but that’s fun too) but you do need to have a focused time and a quiet space. It could be on the deck with your earbuds.
Listen – critically – to music. It’s good for your brain, good for your soul.
Will it make you live a longer, happier, healthier life? As you reel in the years (see what I did there?) I’d say yep, it will indeed.
9) Create Something
We are created beings and we have the ability to create. We all have some level of creativity, whether in art, music, writing, crafting, landscape design, culinary art – any area where you are engaged in making something that was not there before. Or, as Andy Warhol said: “An artist is someone who produces things that people don’t need to have but that he – for some reason – thinks it would be a good idea to give them.”
In an article on the subject in Psychology Today, this is summed up:
“In order to give your brain a full workout, you need to engage both hemispheres of the cerebrum, and of the cerebellum. You can only do this by practicing, exploring, and learning new things in the three dimensions of the real world, not while being sedentary in front of a flat screen.”
Having spent most of my working life selling (cars and then real estate) I always looked forward to a time where I could spend my energies on making something that didn’t exist before. In 2017 I started gathering tools & knowledge to make my own loudspeakers. No kits here – I wanted to take what was in my head and bring it to life.
So I did.
I’ve since conceived, designed, and built 10 speaker systems. The effort was intensely satisfying, and, while I gave 6 of those projects away, I still smile when I walk past these speakers going to my music room.
Today I installed my custom-built skyline diffusers in my room. I enjoyed the 6 months I spent thinking about this project, gathering info, and then the intense (and sometimes monotonous) process of cutting and gluing 588 blocks of wood together.
I used every part of my brain, maybe parts I didn’t know I had. I was creative, stretched mentally, had problems to solve, tool solutions to perfect, etc.
All that, and the supreme satisfaction of enjoying the end result.
Get off your screen. Go create something from your imagination, bring it to life. Your brain will thank you for the effort!
10) B1 & B12
The first thing my neurologist did after my initial recovery from EEE and the resultant brain injury, was to put me on vitamin B1.
Studies have shown that B1 (thiamine) deficiencies are a cause of cognitive decline and encephalopathy. There is a major study underway to determine if a precursor to B1 – Benfotiamine – has effects on Alzheimer’s disease because it looks promising.
I started taking monthly injections of B12 several years ago when my PCP noticed a big dip in my blood work. After starting the injections I could actually feel the difference in mood, fatigue, etc. Low levels of vitamin B12 have been associated with neurocognitive disorders, so it makes sense to keep taking it.
Be careful here. Just because something is over the counter does not mean it’s safe. My B1 can be bought anywhere, but the B12 I use is an RX.
Watch out for grandiose claims of serums, supplements, and pills sold by MLMs. Most important, check with your doctor before loading up on pills you don’t need.
I’ll take my brain pill, and inject myself monthly, because it’s good science for me.
11) Keep Learning
Once again, studies show that continuing to exercise your brain, at all levels, increases cognition.
But, how to do that?
Right here in my area we have the Tennessee Aquarium, the Creative Discovery Museum, the Chattanooga Zoo, the Hunter Museum of American Art, and the much neglected (but very cool) International Towing & Recovery Museum.
Have you ever gone and just stared at an old painting? Tried to feel what the artist was trying to convey? Got immersed in the scene? That is making your brain work hard, outside the TV entertainment box.
And, it turns out, the more senses involved the better. As daunting as the Discovery Museum can be (screaming kids!) it makes you get involved with the displays, whether making music or digging fossils.
Just down I-75 to Cartersville, Georgia you’ll find a museum mecca – Tellus Science Museum, Savoy Automobile, and the Booth Museum of Western Art. All at one exit. Immersive, fascinating, meditative, informative, instructional, just an hour away.
You don’t need to register for classes (not a bad idea though) but you do need to keep your brain working, fire the synapses, create new circuits in the gray matter.
Learning. It’s not just for kids.
Believe it or not, researchers have actually studied prayer and meditation as an aid to slowing cognitive decline.
I know, right?
Meditation is, at its core, nothing more than calming the mind, focusing your attention, enhancing awareness to your being. Nothing woo going on – just simple breathing, relaxing, letting go of the busyness of thought.
Prayer ups the game with a faith component, whereby the meditative process involves communion with God. Not just “asking for stuff” but becoming one and gaining an eternal perspective.
Research has found that those able to enter this contemplative state are able to improve cognitive function. Ascribe it however you want but becoming one with the universe for a few minutes is good for your soul, and good for your brain.
No special skills or training needed – just be still and breathe. No matter your theology (or lack thereof) prayer and meditation can help your cognitive health.
13) Write Something. Anything!
Language skills – reading, writing, speaking – tend to get better as we age. That’s why a change in the ability to use language is a useful indicator of cognitive decline.
And using language is a more-than-useful way to keep your brain cogs turning.
When I write, whether it’s a blog post, a letter, or a Facebook series, I am forced to organize my thoughts. If I’m to be understood, I must use correct language and grammar, write cohesive sentences and paragraphs, and review and correct my writing.
I know not everyone enjoys writing, but you can apply this exercise in simple ways, like these:
1) Organizing your day/week into written lists with details.
2) Rewrite your grocery lists based on store layout (I do this routinely – it also keeps me focused while in the store).
3) You can also try daily journal entries, which causes you to rethink your day.
4) Here’s a crazy idea – write a letter! I made this a priority in 2021 and it was fun for me and the recipients.
5) Write short, original content for your Facebook page. Skip the memes and endlessly shared drivel that’s on there and tell your friends something interesting.
6) Start a Blog! I will not likely ever be published as a writer, but I do enjoy writing essays and posting them to my blog. It’s not hard to set up a Word Press page, and then take time to write your life observations. Sometimes just 16 lucky people read my blogs, but sometimes over 1,600!
You can read my efforts on this blog and on my Facebook page, but after you do, write something!
14) See Your Doctor
As we age, by default, we will see doctors more. Because of my own medical history I see a long list of “-ologists” and that’s not a bad thing.
But men, in particular, are less likely to go see the doc until pushed or unless it’s a crisis, and that is a bad thing.
A good long-term relationship with a PCP can help spot mild cognitive decline, and your doctor can do simple tests, along with blood work, to check for treatable problems. That’s how I ended up on B-12 injections, for example. Also poorly maintained thyroid hormones can lead to decline. Many of these potential problems have simple solutions.
Amazingly, if you are on Medicare you are expected to get an annual physical, and it is covered by insurance. The sooner problems are diagnosed the sooner they can be addressed, and maybe a potential big problem – a brain bleed, for instance, which can lead to rapid decline – can be found and treated.
Keeping your physical body working well is essential to good brain health. Treat yourself to routine exams & maintenance, just like you do for your house and your car. Because your brain is far more important!
15) Start A New Hobby
This will seem like several of the other “18 Ways” listed, and there is some truth to that.
However, research has found that by adding to cognitive activities – things that exercise your brain – reduces the risk of cognitive decline. One study showed an 8-11% reduction for each activity added.
What to do? How about something you always wanted to do, but didn’t have time, such as:
• Learn to play a musical instrument
• Study a new language
• Start a coin or stamp collection
• Crossword puzzles
• Collecting music & equipment
• Restore a car
• Learn to knit
• Landscaping or floral arranging
The list is endless. I have a friend who knits, almost always. She has hats and blankets for everybody in the family plus the opportunity to help her own cognitive health.
Another friend quilts, a highly detailed and painstaking effort that yields great results. The same person enjoys canning nutritious food – and she always sends some my way, so we all benefit.
If you are retired you can’t stop living, can’t stop learning, can’t stop growing. Add an activity – a hobby – that will get you outside your box and stretch your brain.
16) Seek Counsel
Can cognitive decline cause depression, anxiety, or other psychological problems? Or is it the other way around?
There is not enough research to be certain, but people with cognitive decline often have depression or anxiety. And those are real things, just like heart disease or a broken bone.
So get the help you need.
A medical doctor can help with other related causes, but you may consider a form of counseling to get to the bottom of your anxiety, depression, or other issue. That help can come in the form of a trained counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist.
The result can be a variety of therapies up to and including pharmacological solutions.
Personally, after a few years of major detrimental events, I sought counsel. While I never took the RX approach, the sessions helped me better identify what was going on upstairs and helped me better understand how the brain works.
Will counseling help me with cognitive decline? Maybe. But it will certainly help me walk a bit steadier on the path I’m on.
Don’t be afraid to seek psychological help – the science has come a long way.
17) Yoga/Tai Chi/Qigong
In the early stages of my recovery from EEE, when I could barely walk, my daughter Jamie, now a Doctor of Physical Therapy, suggested Gentle Chair Yoga as a way forward. It was a great way to move all my parts in a safe way.
That led to Tai Chi and Qigong. All of these combine physical movement and breathing with a mindful state – brain and body working together in a meditative way.
But if you’re like me “rhino gazes at the moon” and “parting the horse’s mane” and “cultivating internal energy” all sounded a bit… weird.
So I asked my neurologist about these practices, and she said:
“Kenny these aren’t woo.”
She’s a smart lady (multiple degrees in her field of neurology, plus many years of experience) so I’m going with her take.
Once you get past the woo (ha!) you’ll find all of these, especially Tai Chi, to have great practical benefits to both body and brain.
Harvard Medical School did some serious research and found this:
“In a meta-analysis of 20 studies on tai chi and cognition, tai chi appears to improve executive function—the ability to multitask, manage time, and make decisions—in people without any cognitive decline. In those with mild cognitive impairment, tai chi slowed the progression to dementia more than other types of exercise and improved their cognitive function in a comparable fashion to other types of exercise or cognitive training.”
Wow, not woo!
There’s a link below if you want to look into it. That same YouTube channel also has safe chair yoga.
Namaste! (Not woo either – just a show of respect)
18) Eat Better
Your brain weighs about 3lbs, but it burns about 20% of your caloric intake! Your brain is hungry, so feed it the right stuff.
And, it turns out, the exact same diet that boosts cardiac health also boosts cognitive health – the famous Mediterranean Diet.
Here’s what that looks like:
• Fruits & vegetables
• Whole grains
• Beans, nuts, and seeds
• Olive oil
• Fish & poultry
• Dairy products (cheese, yogurt, milk)
• Easy on the red meat
There is no “miracle” brain food, but a healthy, diverse diet is almost a guarantee of a better old age.
The American diet is skewed towards large portions of meat accompanied by lots of carbs. It’s not that you can’t enjoy a burger & fries, you just may need to make that the occasional treat.
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in oily fish, are as close to brain food as you can get. I love a nice portion of roasted skin-on salmon, and eat the skin, too, because that’s where the Omega-3s hang out. My cat used to eat only the skin – maybe she knew something?
Good news for coffee & tea drinkers – those beverages play a role in cognitive health. And, while I’m not advocating you start drinking, moderate wine consumption is good (a part of that Mediterranean diet).
The real simple secret here is to eat from all the food groups, in moderation, and not eliminating any food group just to lose a few pounds. Your body & brain need all the nutrients, from all sources, for good health.
You can roll the dice and hope that you are one of the lucky group that does not experience cognitive decline. You can wait until you are diagnosed and then play catch-up, trying to reverse years of decay. Or you can start now, today, by deploying some or all of these proven ways to slow, and even reverse, cognitive decline.
Your brain – use it or lose it!